Movie review: Maudie shows us the pain behind happy art

Movie Review: Maudie

Sally Hawkins gives a remarkable performance as the elfin, crippled Nova Scotia artist Maud Lewis, who lived in a tiny shack and sold her paintings at the side of the road



Starring: Sally Hawkins, Ethan Hawke

Directed by: Aisling Walsh

Running time: 115 minutes

Maudie Maud Lewis

Maudie: A finely painted portrait of the artist as a neglected spouse.

By Jay Stone

Maud Lewis (1903-1970) was a Nova Scotia folk artist whose brightly colored, naïve paintings — of birds and trees and fields, all rendered with a joyful lack of pretense (and, sometimes, of perspective) — were sold at the side of the road from the tiny one-room shack where she lived. The paintings cost $5 until Maud became famous; now they are worth thousands. The shack, whose walls and windows Maud also decorated with painted flowers and happy borders, was small enough that it fits into the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax, where you can see it today.

Maud herself was a strange, elfin figure: thin, petite, crippled by rheumatoid arthritis and slightly bend in an attitude of supplication, although that crooked spine turned out to be made of steel. In the new movie Maudie, someone tells her that she walks funny. “I was just born funny,” she replies. Among other things, she has an unquenchable sense of whimsy.

Maudie is, appropriately, a strange and slightly elfin movie that treats her sad and triumphant story as something as a piece of naïve art. It’s about Maud’s passion for painting and also a pained love story about the raw, tough romance between her and the gruff, misanthropic man she lived with.

It is notable mostly for the performance of English actor Sally Hawkins, who twists herself into a wry, mousy character who shuffles through a world of unforgiving 1930s morality, when a woman with physical afflictions could be viewed as a mental incompetent. Hawkins makes Maudie into a compelling combination of sorrowful outsider and wry observer whose need to paint — to transfer her simple, childlike vision of the world to the bits of scrap wood on which she worked — becomes more desperate as her body becomes more crippled.

We meet Maudie when she’s in her 30s, being handed off by family members like some sort of deranged child. She takes control of her own life one day when she answers an ad for a live-in housekeeper at the home — that tiny shack — of Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke). Everett, who peddles fish for a living, is a mean illiterate who tells Maudie she ranks somewhere below his dogs and his chickens, but he slowly comes to rely on her and even to love her. A lot of this seems to have something to do with the fact that her paintings bring in $5 each, which he considers quite a bit of money for idiots to pay for Maud’s scribblings.

However, Maud is discovered when Sandra (Kari Matchett), a fancy woman from New York City, sees her work and introduces it to the outside world (at one stage, Maud gets a letter from Richard Nixon asking if he can buy a painting. Two of her works are in the White House.) But neither Sandra nor anyone else can penetrate the little world of Maud and Everett, which runs on its own unlikely calculus of need, devotion and poverty. Screenwriter Sherry White allows the story to fall into melodrama, but she wisely doesn’t try to explain the attraction between these two outliers.

It’s plausible, but the chemistry isn’t helped by the casting of Hawke, who is far too handsome — too conventional looking — in a role that calls for the same hard-edged, weather-beaten integrity that Hawkins brings to Maud. This Everett isn’t a man who would live alone on an empty road; he’d be in town, starting fights. Hawke compensates by hammering one note, irascibility, occasionally leavened with unexpected acts of grudging kindness.

Irish director Aisling Walsh (The Daisy Chain) lets their story develop quietly, occasionally taking us outside of the dingy, dusty shack into a glorious landscape of painted houses perched along the sea. Although set in Nova Scotia, Maudie was filmed in Newfoundland, and it has a distinctive look that nonetheless matches the artist’s colourful simplicity. The vistas provide a pleasant shock of recognition: this is what Maud must have seen.

Without over-emphasizing the point, Maudie also gives us the same feeling we get in Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, about artist Walter Keane’s appropriation of his wife’s paintings: that a woman can be an artist, but she is a secondary character in her own life. The difference here is that Everett, for all his seething anger, gives Maud credit for her talent, and that Maud will not allow her life to be stolen from her. Maudie shows us the pain under her happy vision.

THE EX-PRESS, April 23, 2017

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Review: Maudie shows us the pain behind happy art

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Maudie: Sally Hawkins gives a remarkable performance as Maud Lewis, the late Nova Scotia folk artist who, crippled by arthritis, nevertheless turned out hundreds of happy, colourful paintings of animals and flowers. She lived in small shack with her mean husband (a miscast Ethan Hawke) and they found a romance as unlikely as her success. 3 1/2 stars out of 5 -- Jay Stone

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