Maud Lewis is one of Canada’s most famous and celebrated folk artists. Eking out a meagre existence in a one-room shack on the outskirts of Marshalltown, Nova Scotia, this unassuming woman achieved far-reaching fame and notoriety for her whimsical folk art inspired by life in the Canadian Maritimes.
Maudie is not so much a rags-to-riches story as it is a rags-to-lesser-rags story of hardship. In a pre-credit sequence, we see an elderly Maud Lewis struggling to hold a paintbrush: her grip falters and we hear a crash and then darkness.
After the film’s title card, which is scrawled in childlike chicken-scratch lettering, we open on a younger Maud. Although Maud is a grown woman, she is infantilized by her Aunt Ida and brother Charles. Maud is not allowed to make her own decisions or live the life she wants. Ida orders her around and condescends to her, and her brother Charles sells her childhood home without consulting her.
Sally Hawkins plays Maud with a fitful energy. Maud moves through the full range of emotion in seconds, often changing pitch and tone from word to word. She is witty and sarcastic in her conversation with Charles and her aunt, but awkward and shy when out and about in Digby. Hawkins plays Maud with a twitchy nervousness that’s most apparent when she’s sucking down cigarettes like Coca-Cola through a straw.
Seeking independence from her aunt’s strict house rules, Maud answers an advertisement placed by the local fish peddlar for a housemaid. Ethan Hawke plays Maud’s employer, Everett Lewis, as hard-bitten and oafish. Maud and Everett are similar in many ways, and their initial interactions are stilted and monosyllabic. Both are passionate people, though Everett Lewis is quicker to anger than Maud.
One sequence drew audible gasps from the audience. As Maud yammers on to one of Everett’s workmates about her work and their life together Lewis becomes more and more uncomfortable, and eventually he silences her with a fist to the face.
This flash of physical abuse shows that Maud has traded one mistreatment for another in her search for independence. She retreats to the interior of Everett’s shack and begins to paint with her finger on one of the walls.
Lewis’s home is cramped and grey, but Maud soon brightens up the room with doodles of plants and animals. Everett is taken by Maud’s painting, though he will not admit outright. He merely gives permission for her to continue with them, as long as she keeps her paint away from his work boots.
Hawke’s characterisation of Everett is that of a simple man. His life is one of hardship, he has little time for any emotion, and as such we only see extremes. He has little time to dwell on anything and acts on an almost instinctual level. The remorse that Everett feels is plain for the audience to see, but he will never express it to Maud directly.
The film does not present Everett as the great man behind the great woman. Instead, he is often a hindrance to Maud. Sherry White’s screenplay establishes their romance as one of necessity that slowly gives way to tangible affection. The two actors play off one another beautifully. We feel all the hurt feelings and see all the anguish, but we also hear those unspoken words of love – they’re in a quick smile or a tearful eye.
Maudie isn’t all heaviness and hardship, however. There’s as much levity as there is heartache in the picture. Maud and Everett certainly make for an odd couple, but a lot of humour is drawn out of their interactions. Frequent sight gags help to lighten the tone of the film as well. Dublin-born director Aisling Walsh uses cutting effectively throughout the film, and often cuts serve as the punchlines to jokes. One sequence involving Maudie and a chicken exemplifies this perfectly. You’ll know it when you see it.
Despite the film’s sense of humour and lighter tone here and there, Walsh doesn’t lose sight of the struggles at the centre of Maud Lewis’s life. Maudie resists the typical narrative arc seen in other films of this type. Lewis achieves fame and celebrity through her postcards and paintings, but her life remains much the same.
The exterior of their one-room shack stays as rundown as ever, save for the addition of a screen door to keep the flies out in the summer time. Despite the passage of time and Maud’s success, the Lewis’s home remains in stasis. They live in the ’60s as they did in the ’30s and ’40s. The only notable difference in the set is that the drab walls of their home are now covered with Maud’s lively artwork.
The make-up department does an admirable job of ageing up Hawkins and Hawke. Hawkins’s limp and hunched posture become more pronounced as the film moves into its final act. Owing to her lifelong, arthritis Maud Lewis spent the last few years of her life in extreme pain. Still, she continued to work on her cards and paintings.
Just as Everett refuses to allow himself to get bogged down in emotion, Maud is steadfast in her work. The film wraps around to its pre-credit sequence as Maud struggles in bringing some colour to her harsh circumstances.
Maudie is a film that looks for the little sparks of light in the dark. It’s a glass-half-full kind of film. Even though its characters live lives of hardship and strife, they manage to find moments of happiness and contentment.
Hawke and Hawkins locking frail hands against the blustery backdrop of Atlantic Canada is one of a hundred or more moments that make Maudie more than a downbeat biopic. It’s a film that’s triumphant and hopeful and as beautiful in its straight simplicity as one of Lewis’s paintings.