Aisling Walsh’s biographical film about Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis is a gentle dance between two fine actors, with the female partner taking the lead. Though screenwriter Sherry White takes some liberties with the historical record and Walsh, though meticulous in recreating the setting, doesn’t manage to capture the passage of time quite so smoothly, “Maudie” is a charming portrait of a woman who found a life of simple contentment with a most unlikely partner.
Sally Hawkins is superb as Maud, who is introduced living unhappily with her aunt (Gabriele Rose) in Digby, a small town in Nova Scotia, since her callous brother (Zachary Bennett) has sold the family home she’d hoped to return to. Afflicted from childhood with rheumatoid arthritis, Maud is awkward and shy, but desperate for companionship. She goes to the town club simply to watch the couples dancing, and when a gruff local man, Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), posts a notice for a live-in housemaid in the general store, she decides impetuously to apply for the job.
Lewis is a grim fellow who grew up in the local orphanage and ekes out a living by collecting scrap and peddling fish and wood from a cart he pushes through the rural neighborhood. His house is a tiny, single-room affair located, totally isolated, along the road to Digby, with a loft below the rafters that serves as a bedroom. He’s initially reluctant to take on Maud, but changes his mind when no one else applies, and though their relationship is initially very strained, with Lewis unable even to explain what he expects of her, Maud’s determination to succeed on her own overcomes his natural surliness, and they achieve a degree of equilibrium, even sharing the single bed.
Maud also begins to paint on the interior walls of the house. (In reality, she had already painted as a child, but the screenplay makes no mention of that, suggesting that she was simply moved to start doing so, haltingly at first, in response to the environment in which she now found herself.) Her postcard-sized pieces—colorful, childlike images of flowers, animals and people (the owner of the store notes with some justification that his five-year old could do as well)—are noticed by one of Everett’s customers, a sophisticated New Yorker (Kari Matchett), and her purchase of a few leads her to expand her work to larger “canvases”—pieces of wood and metal. Eventually she begins selling the result to passersby, and local news outlets take up her story, further enhancing her modest celebrity. Everett is pleased at the additional revenue coming in, and softening more and more, agrees that they should be married.
Up to this point, the film has proceeded slowly, the passage of time barely perceptible. Now, however, though the pacing remains deliberate, the chronology speeds up, with Maud and Everett conspicuously older though not much wealthier, the paintings selling well but always at minimal prices. (One of the few instances in which Maud exhibits a bit of tartness comes when her brother shows up to buy one of her pieces, and she jacks up the price.) A bit of a shift occurs when Maud learns something from her dying aunt that comes as a shock and Everett is given a rare opportunity to exhibit kindness to her, but the final stretch is mostly devoted to Maud’s deteriorating health and her decreasing ability to paint.
This is not an inherently dramatic story, but it works as a touching character study, not only because Hawkins brings such tenderness and indomitability to Maud, but because Hawke proves an able partner. He’s not really right for the role physically, being too handsome for Everett (as the inevitable clip of the actual couple during the closing credits show). But he’s appropriately grumpy and taciturn, and by the end has helped to make the affection between Maud and Everett palpable. This is essentially a two-hander, but the others in the cast handle the little they have to do well enough.
The actors’ contributions are enhanced by the technical ones. John Hand’s production design recreates the Lewis house expertly, and cinematographer Guy Godfree uses its claustrophobic space extremely well while luxuriating in the Newfoundland locations, especially in the winter scenes, which might actually make you chilly. Michael Timmons’ score adds nicely to the film’s folksy feel.
The obvious comparison one might draw to “Maudie” is “My Left Foot,” Jim Sheridan’s film about another physically challenged artist, Christy Brown, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. “Maudie” doesn’t reach its level, but it too is anchored in a splendid lead performance, and will leave you with an appreciation for what Lewis accomplished in her life, not only in terms of her art but her marriage.