Maudie

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - PHILIP MARTIN

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.

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