A pair of powerhouse performances from two of the best working actors in the world at the moment anchor Maudie, Irish filmmaker Aisling Walsh’s Canadian produced biopic of Nova Scotian painter Maud Lewis. While Maud Lewis’ actual paintings have become a bit of a curious footnote in Canadian art history over recent years, the leading performances from British actress Sally Hawkins and American actor Ethan Hawke are good enough to ensure that Lewis’ work and legacy will last for generations to come.
The film opens at a seminal moment in the life of adult Maud (played by Hawkins), a woman who desperately wants to live a normal life, but has been born with near crippling arthritis. She lives with her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) against her will and craves independence. After she expects to inherit her childhood home following the passing of her mother, Maud is gutted to hear that her shifty brother has sold the property and kept the profits for himself. Frustrated and desperate to get out on her own, Maud answers an advert from cantankerous local fisherman, scrapper, and former orphan Everett Lewis (Hawke) looking for a housekeeper. She travels to Everett’s minuscule shack on a rural road in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia and begs for the job despite not knowing anything about housekeeping. Everett warily gives Maud the job, but she quickly realizes that he’s a bit of a nightmare to work for, prone to angry outbursts at the drop of a hat and terrible at conveying any sense of direction. To pass the time between chores, she begins painting on walls and scraps of plywood. People who stop by Everett’s shack begin to take notice of Maud’s often crude, but evocative and pleasing to look at artworks and begin making monetary offers and asking for commissions. Over time, a love and business partnership begins to foster between Maud and Everett that would become a part of art history.
The script by Sherry White and Walsh’s direction trim the fat away from Lewis’ life that would have bogged down most other biopics, leaving only the juiciest of cuts for the actors to sink their teeth into and focusing only on Maud and Everett’s lives from 1937 to 1970. Maudie is a relationship drama first and foremost, outlining the sometimes uneasy partnership between Maud and Everett, and a biopic second. There aren’t any moments where Walsh feels the need to stop the film’s momentum for an important piece of exposition or to underscore Lewis’ accomplishments. If it doesn’t directly involve Maud, her family, Everett, or people who would change their lives directly, it has been stripped away.
The closest Maudie comes to slowing down are in brief moments where Walsh and cinematographer Guy Godfree (Wet Bum, Natasha) stop to admire the majestic landscapes of Maud’s life in simpler Canadian times. The effort and detail that went into recreating Everett’s shack (in Newfoundland, because such rural communities are hard to find in Nova Scotia anymore) is stunning, and its placement in rolling landscapes of grain is perfect. It’s understandable why in a film about a painter who drew so much from her environment as Maud Lewis – a woman who never traveled more than an hour from her home – that the landscape itself would prove to be a major character.
But it’s still hard not to think that without Hawkins and Hawke there wouldn’t be much to chew on in Maudie. Maud and Everett are simple, honest, marginally educated people of few words. Much of their communication with each other and outsiders has to be done via gestures, tics, and subtle nods, although the sometimes fiery and gregarious Maud can shed her humility for some memorable moments. Hawkins plays Lewis’ arthritic posture expertly, hunching over, taking measured steps, and raising her head only slightly whenever spoken to. The rhythm of her voice sings and conveys warmth, but starts and stops to exude social awkwardness. Hawk turns a role that in lesser hands would have been nothing more than a pile of grimaces, sneers, and barely verbal conversational skills, and makes it into something consistently magnetic. Hawkins has a lot of heavy lifting to do, dramatically and physically, to portray Maud Lewis, and Walsh has given the leading actress the perfect choice of a supporting actor. They give each other so much to work with, that any of the weaker and potentially suspect bits of Maudie are still easy to take in.
If there’s anything about Maudie that jumps out as being awkwardly handled, it’s the blossoming romance between Maud and Everett. It comes across as initially abusive and one could make the argument from how events are presented here that they only ended up together because Maud lowered her expectations and gave in to a form of Stockholm Syndrome. True or not, that’s a bit uneasy to think about and hard to fully reconcile, especially when Walsh and White are striving to make a relatively sunny picture around someone who has suffered as much physical and psychological pain as Maud has. It’s a testament to Hawkins, Hawke, and Walsh that they’re able to straddle a fine line and maintain a film about a somewhat brutish “old school” countryside romance and keep it centred on the healing power of art. Thanks to the revelatory work from Hawkins and Hawke, Maudie stays on its emotional and narrative tasks better than it probably should. There aren’t two other actors who could have played these roles quite like this, and they elevate Maudie from the level of a decent Canadian made motion picture into something worth seeking out.