Maud Lewis is a cult figure in Canada, a self-taught painter whose joyous, childlike work belies the grave circumstances of her life. Though she died in 1970, she’s still one of Canada’s best-known artists and her work commands impressive if not star-level prices: In May, a small piece she originally sold for $5 was discovered in a thrift store. It commanded $45,000 at auction.
Irish filmmaker Aisling Walsh’s Maudie, a film biography of Lewis, seems bound to raise her profile outside her native country and might potentially cause her prices to skyrocket. But it isn’t the standard biopic. It follows none of the genre’s conventions of place-setting, and out of respect for the film’s strategy of gradual revelation I’m refraining from describing Maud’s childhood or the affliction that hobbled her all her life. Walsh wants you to discover it in your own time.
But it is no spoiler to say that Lewis (played by luminous British actor Sally Hawkins) lived for more than 30 years in a one-room house on a dirt road in Nova Scotia (a structure that now resides in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, the province’s main art museum), rarely venturing out and then only in the company of her husband, an illiterate fish peddler named Everett (Ethan Hawke).
The film opens in the late years of the Depression with orphaned 30-something Maud living unhappily under the thumb of her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose), a terrible old scold whose resentment of her indigent charge is palpable. So Maud takes every opportunity to slip off to a roadhouse to guzzle beer and listen to jazz. One day she’s at the dry goods store when a sullen grunting man who turns out to be Everett pins a notice to the wall. He’s looking for a housekeeper. To escape Aunt Ida, Maud surreptitiously removes the notice and slips it into her pocket. She has found a way out of her old life.
Everett is reclusive and rough, living in what amounts to a shack attended by a couple of dogs. He keeps a flock of chickens and mostly to himself. It turns out that he might have wanted (needed) feminine companionship as much as someone to pick up after him; in his unchivalrous way he’s made no effort to provide for a live-in housekeeper. His small house is filthy and there’s a single bed in the loft. He has ideas; Maud disabuses him at first.
Within weeks they are married, and she has negotiated the freedom to do what she is driven to do: paint. Which Everett tolerates, as long as she keeps the house clean. As he explains the hierarchy: “There’s me, them dogs, them chickens, then you.”
Everett and Maud’s relationship has been detailed in a couple of documentaries, and the agreed- upon facts seem to hold it was a difficult and perhaps exploitative coupling, but one that held fast. At least one of Maud Lewis’ biographers has adjudged the real Everett Lewis to be monstrously abusive; Walsh, under color of dramatic license, renders a much gentler verdict. In this version, there are tensions and even a sharp occasion of violence (which is probably meant to suggest a pattern), but Everett and Maud manage to love each other very much.
And were it not based on the real-life of an actual person, the love story would be enough.
Both of the key actors manage impressive physical transformations; somehow the rangy Hawkins has made herself twisted and elfin; she transmits joy through her paintings, which soon become the household’s main revenue stream. Once she starts painting, she can’t contain herself.
As impressive as Hawkins is, the usually delicate, restlessly intelligent Hawke equals her performance. He has made himself sluggish and thick. In the past he has sometimes seemed irritatingly, needlessly complex on screen, but in this role Hawke makes no play for the audience’s empathy — he doesn’t try to make us aware of the soul within the dolt. He doesn’t try to charm us. It’s a brave performance that suggests he’s willing to go places the filmmakers aren’t.
Walsh and screenwriter Sherry White have made a choice to present us with a love story with some troubling undertones; they have simplified and Hollywood-ized Maud’s life. And this might be a legitimate choice given that every movie is at some level a commercial endeavor. Audiences can only accept so much bleakness; at some point the sun must break through.
It is a beautiful film, shot partially on location in Nova Scotia but mostly in Ireland, in remote and wild places. And if you can get past how it appropriates a life that mightn’t have been so happy, Sally Hawkins, with her large features and her transcendent smile, convinces us it was.
Maud (Sally Hawkins) and Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) are an unlikely couple in Aisling Walsh’s Maudie, a prettified film biography of the Canadian folk artist.