.Review: ‘Maudie’

Biopic follows the life and times of Canadian painter Maud Lewis

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The endearingly gawky Sally Hawkins (Happy Go Lucky) stars in Maudie—one of the best film portraits of a character constrained by their body, up there with My Left Foot. The Nova Scotia outsider artist Maud Lewis (Hawkins) was bent over with juvenile arthritis, with hands so clawed she eventually had to hold the brushes with her wrists.

Maudie made a small name for herself, painting her world—the pets she had or wished she had, and flowers for every season.

She lived in a 10-by-12-foot shack with her fish-peddling husband, Everett (Ethan Hawke), selling her paintings by the roadside as souvenirs. Because of her immobility Maud couldn’t paint very big canvases. Much of her work has disappeared.

Maudie shows how her life changed when she left her domineering aunt and took a job with Everett—a scowling, almost vicious grown-up orphan with a bad temper. Hawke has to stretch; he’s a tenor trying to sing bass. It’s clear why Hawke was cast; because he’s a warm, handsome actor, you forgive Everett for his meanness. Hawke recalls the line in La Strada excusing Zampano’s similarly bad temper: “A dog looks at you, wants to talk and only barks.”

You wouldn’t want to stake your life on the historical accuracy of Irish director Aisling Walsh’s portrait of 30 years in the life of this woman and her husband. Sherry White’s script is wise about poverty—as in an uncommented-upon moment when Everett dries a used tea bag on the stove.

But at the end we see the real-life characters in a clip of a short, black-and-white Canadian Broadcasting Corp. documentary made about Maud. It doesn’t really reflect what we’ve just seen—maybe Walsh should have done without that biopic tradition. The old Everett we see from real life smiles at his wife like a beatific gapper. And unlike the man who grudges the pictures painted on his wall, and who was reluctant to marry, the real Everett bought his wife her first paint set, and wed her after a six week courtship.

If Maudie Lewis was anything like Sally Hawkins, why wouldn’t he? Hawkins’ unguarded grin, the husky voice from too many cigs, the candidness and sidelong ways are disarming. There is a secret world inside her; left alone, she talks a bit to herself, or to the chickens. In one poignant scene, she brings a hen to the chopping block: “Yeah. It’s time. You know, don’t you?” Her Maud isn’t a simpleton, and the movie has plenty of salt to it, as when Maud’s starchy aunt (Gabrielle Rose), tries to shame her niece for living in sin: “You’re determined to put a stain on the family name.” “Uh-huh.”

Maudie could be paired with a Scandinavian comedy, maybe Aki Kaurismaki’s The Man Without A Past—movies with jokes that float there, with heavy silences, with the discomfort of dealing with other people in close conditions in a cold country.

But Walsh has her own unique eye for the background. This small town has a pulse to it. If the coastal gloaming rarely lifts, the houses are brightly painted, and we see a jazz band during the war where the dancers in their tight dresses are shaking it. The town changes through the movie; what once was hardscrabble starts to look appealingly touristy.

The Lauren Bacall-like Kari Matchett has a line that sums things up. She’s Sandra, a chic New York vacationer to whom Maud makes her first sale. “Did you paint that happy li’l chicken?” Sandra asks, and the slight edge of patronization shows under the friendliness. The line also indicates this movie’s sense of priorities: it doesn’t make outsized claims for Maude Lewis as a suffering master, even if she had a few celebrity sales…one to Richard Nixon, of all people.

Someday I’ll go to the museum in Halifax, to see the tiny house the Lewises lived in, now preserved with all of the paintings Maud did over the years covering the walls. But my point is that the movie Maudie would be captivating even if the title character had never painted a lick.

PG-13, 115 Mins.
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