Early in their relationship, when Maudie (Sally Hawkins) has answered an ad for a live-in housekeeper posted by reclusive Nova Scotia fish peddler Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), he lets her know where she stands in the household pecking order. “I’m first,” he growls. Next, he says, come the dogs. Then the chickens. “You’re at the bottom.”
Maudie is used to the short end of the stick. Born “funny” (her word) and crippled since childhood with rheumatoid arthritis, Maudie lived with her brother after their parents died, and then moved in with her stern Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose). Now in her thirties, the housekeeping gig (even looking up at the chickens) seems like a step toward liberation. And when the crusty, brutish Lewis offers marriage, to overcome her sexual scruples, she accepts.
Hawkins is one of those British actors, like Imelda Staunton, who is so good most people in America don’t even know who she is. She disappears completely into the roles she plays. Hawke is almost as good, although people do know who he is, so total disappearance isn’t an option.
Irish director Aisling Walsh has crafted a chamber piece inspired by the life of artist Maud Lewis (19031970) that leans heavily on character study as it follows the growth of Maudie’s recognition as an artist and the deepening of her relationship with Lewis. As the movie has it, she discovers art when she dips her finger into a puddle of spilled paint and starts daubing flowers on the wall of the Lewis shack. This is a bit of poetic license (she learned watercolor from her mother), but remember, it’s a movie. Some connective material is skipped over, but Hawkins keeps you too captivated to mind much. A key subplot involving a baby may be apocryphal, but it serves an emotional purpose.
Gnarled and scrunched from her affliction, Maudie maintains a positive demeanor and a sunny smile. She sells hand-painted greeting cards for a nickel or a dime to her husband’s customers. And when a summer resident, Sandra (Kari Matchett), takes an interest in Maudie’s folk art and commissions some larger works, things begin to take off. Local television does a story on her (“Vice President Nixon has one of her paintings”) and people start beating a path to her cheerily painted door. Her price for a painting goes up to $5, then to $10. And everyone, from Aunt Ida to Lewis, begins to show her a little respect.
Clamping a brush between her crippled fingers, Maudie creates infectious art, and so does Hawkins, in a performance with Oscar potential. You’ll want to linger for the end credits, which display a gallery of her Grandma Moses-like paintings. These days, they sell for tens of thousands of dollars, and the Lewis shack is a museum. — Jonathan Richards