Aisling Walsh’s biopic inspires a transcendent performance from Sally Hawkins as Nova Scotian folk painter Maudie.
An art lifeby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Folk painter Maud Lewis had what to us may seem a sad life, never moving from her small town on the coast of Nova Scotia. She was crippled with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, turned out of the family home by her brother Charles (Zachary Bennett) when their parents died and sent to live with her reluctant Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose). But she had a subversive intelligence and her release was painting.
To escape from her disapproving aunt in her thirties, she answered an ad in the local store to work as a house maid for curmudgeonly local fish peddler Everett Lewis, living with him in his tiny cottage. Though he treated her appallingly, a kind of affection grew up between them and they eventually married. Maudie covered the cottage in her childlike paintings of flowers, birds and whatever she saw around her. She painted compulsively and on anything she could find. Her cards and paintings started to find buyers, thanks to a lucky meeting with a holidaying New Yorker (Kari Matchett) and her fame spread. The film follows Maudie from her thirties to her early death in her sixties.
Sally Hawkins gets superbly to the essence of Maudie, contorting her face and body unrecognisably into Maudie’s tiny distorted frame, with Maudie’s slyly humorous personality breaking through the ravages of her disability. As Everett, Ethan Hawke has the difficult task of making an unpleasant, insensitive, domineering character, who at times behaves with sudden viciousness towards Maudie, watchable. But he’s able to hint at the softening that Maudie engenders in him and, over time, we see a kind of affection and even love develop between them as they age. But despite this, it’s also shown that Everett exploited Maudie, keeping the money from the sale of her paintings as she became the main breadwinner, and they continued to live in poverty, without running water or electricity, for their whole lives.
The casual cruelty in Maudie is at times hard to watch – “People don’t like it if you’re different”, she comments, and Everett callously tells her her place in the pecking order is below his dogs and chickens – and the film is slow to get to the meat of the story. It’s tempting from how she’s presented by director Aisling Walsh (Fingersmith) and screenwriter Sherry White to assume that painting compulsively was a form of therapy for her – or at least a way of escaping the harshness of her life, though perhaps the details of it have been slightly sanitised for the screen. However, Maudie is a riveting and brilliantly acted insight into what is to most of us the life of a little known to us folk artist, though beloved in Canada, who against all the odds triumphed over her surroundings. It’s also an unlikely – and moving – love story between two damaged people – one emotionally and one physically – on the edge of society.
Maudie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and is released on 4 August 2017 in the UK.