For a film about a beloved artist whose work is singularly sweet, ‘Maudie’ has an unexpected amount of stark reality. Although the actors’ showcase ultimately falls into the comfy confines of feel-good entertainment, it takes a surprisingly harsh road to get there.
The almost impossibly lovable Sally Hawkins stars as Maud Lewis, a Canadian artist whose works now fetch a mint in auctions. Of course, she’s far from successful at the start of this tale. Suffering from painful arthritis and a curved back in 1930s rural Nova Scotia, she’s an outcast in the community (especially from her own family). Maud becomes so desperate for human connection and a life of her own that she responds to an ad for a live-in maid. The man who made the ad is monosyllabic fishmonger Everett (Ethan Hawke), who lives in a tiny barn on the outskirts of town. At first, he treats her miserably and Maud accepts the abuse because it’s all she’s ever known. Eventually, Maud starts painting. By the end of her life, she sells enough to support her little fractured home (even landing President Richard Nixon as a client). Along the way, Everett falls deeply in love with Maud, caring for her in all the ways that she used to care for him.
On the one hand, ‘Maudie’ is a mawkishly romantic bio-pic that pulls as hard as possible on the heartstrings for some Hallmark sentiments. On the other hand, it’s a deeply strange and somewhat unsettling love story that grows from abuse into lifelong affection. That’s a tricky combination to pin down. Director Aisling Walsh and writer Sherry White deserve significant kudos for their willingness to engage with such potentially problematic material. Some may balk at the transition from abuse to love and consider the material toxic. However, the filmmakers make no apologies for the strange relationship that they weave. They earn the emotional payoff and in no way shy away from the ickier aspects of the story. They just dare to present a true love story as it was, with all the discomforting messiness and pain that comes along with so many relationships of that not exactly enlightened era.
It helps that this two-hander film is cast so extraordinarily well. Sally Hawkins is absolutely remarkable in the lead role, disappearing into the unique physicality and vocal tones of Maud Lewis. It’s a tricky role that could easily have felt like a ‘Simple Jack’ charade, but Hawkins finds the human beneath the behavioral ticks. Her character is so pained, yet so driven to find happiness in the smallest of places, that’s she’s simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring. Hawkins’ performance has a beauty at the core, and somehow you miss the character long after the movie is over. As for Ethan Hawke, he’s cast against type as a simple-minded brute with a heart of gold and few words to say. He doesn’t shy away from the uglier sides of the character, but carefully shows the heart beneath the gruff exterior in ways that explain his repellent defense mechanisms. Together, the two characters grow into a heartwarmingly unconventional couple that are sweetly fascinating and wholly believable.
Visually, the low-budget production is fairly simple yet well-constructed. Aisling leans on landscape beauty shots, which suits Lewis’ brand of art well. The recreation of Maud’s tiny farmhouse covered with paintings is gorgeous and the atmosphere grows from tragedy to flowery romance without feeling forced.
Ultimately, this inspirational bio romance descends into convention in ways that might put off those impressed by the daring emotional honesty elsewhere, and provides sentimental satisfaction for viewers who would have turned off long ago. It’s a bit of an awkward journey filled with tonal confusion and conflicting ambitions. Still, the central performances are remarkable and the film is better than most of its ilk. ‘Maudie’ is a movie worthy of its subject, provided those interested in seeking it out aren’t put off by the true nature of the story.