Spearheaded by two superb leads in Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke, Maudie is a moving, delicately managed and intimate portrait of Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis. One of the year’s best.
Sally Hawkins has demonstrated her excellence as a performer in a string of mostly low-budget, high quality films (eg: All Or Nothing, Made in Dagenham, Blue Jasmine), and in her latest, Maudie, a portrayal of Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis, she hits a career high as the eponymous lead character. Indeed, Hawkin’s days as relatively low-profile quiet achiever could be numbered – this is the performance of the year for me, and should place her in contention for a Best Actor Oscar.
Ethan Hawke also turns in a blinder as Maudie’s damaged and often brutish fish peddler partner, Everett. They get together when Maudie decides she’s had enough of the controlling aunt with whom she lives and moves into Everett’s tiny house in the Nova Scotia countryside as his live-in housekeeper and cook (in fact, the film is shot in Newfoundland).
Everett is initially reluctant to employ her because of her crippling arthritic condition, but he’s in no position to pick and choose. He’s damaged too, no doubt partly due to having been raised in an orphanage. He’s an almost pathologically selfish loner prone to self-pity and paranoia, taciturn, gruff and abusive (physically and verbally). And it turns out Maudie has nowhere to sleep but in his bed!
She struggles, finding solace in painting joyous, colourful, child-like flowers and birds on the walls. Surprisingly, Everett doesn’t object, and she graduates to windows, mirror, and virtually any paintable surface. In time, she transforms the house into a work of naïve art, then graduates to selling hand-painted cards.
To Everett’s consternation, Maudie’s growing reputation brings increasing numbers of folk to the house looking to buy cards and paintings. However, he’s happy with the extra income, which he takes control of. An order even comes from the White House, from US Vice President of the time, Richard Nixon.
The real focus here, however, is not Maudie’s art, but her relationship with Everett. His change in attitude towards her is signalled with an uncharacteristically kind gesture (it’s a lovely moment best unspoiled by elaboration here). Bit by bit he unthaws, and their relationship develops into love – flawed and idiosyncratic, but love nevertheless. Everett is still taciturn, and still capable of cruelty, but in Maudie he has someone who expects little and gives loyalty in return. For someone with his abandonment issues, this is precious.
For her, being loved – in whatever guise – and free to paint is enough. The transformation in both characters and their relationship is subtle and delicately handled, the performances exquisite. Hawkins brings a quiet dignity to Maudie, and an indefatigable spirit that tames and civilises Everett (and sometimes surfaces in wry critical observations of him).
The film has been criticised for being a “romanticised” portrayal of Maud Lewis’ life, and it’s certainly true that the filmmakers have exercised poetic licence and strayed from the facts, some of them unsavoury. One of the most poignant scenes in the film is fiction. That said, in my view the use of the word “romanticised” is a little lazy and imprecise, and misapplied here. That word carries with it the implication of sentimentality and mawkishness, of Hollywood-style “romance” – and that’s not what you get in Maudie. Maudie and Everett are singular characters and theirs is an off-beat love, expertly presented as such.
I admit, though, I was disappointed at learning of the film’s biographical inaccuracies. Take that out of the equation and Maudie is one of the best movies of the year, and one of the most moving. And nothing detracts from its greatest strengths – the wonderful lead performances of Hawkins and Hawke, the brilliantly managed spare dialogue off which they work, and Aisling Walsh’s sensitive direction.
Australian release date: Maudie is screening in Perth at Cinema Paradiso, Luna on SX and Windsor from 24 Aug 2017
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