Like many a North American folk artist, Maud Lewis’ oeuvre — which consists of countless paintings of fuzzy cats, crude-looking flowers, and flat country landscapes — could easily be dismissed as being no better than the work of a child. The difference is that most children don’t have to contend with rheumatoid arthritis, which left Lewis partly crippled from an early age, and required her to work far harder than other untrained artists to bring beauty and color to her grim existence.
Though such characters offer obvious appeal to actors, “Maudie” isn’t nearly as preoccupied with its subject’s physical impairment as, say, a movie like “My Left Foot” or “Frida.” If anything, director Aisling Walsh downplays Lewis’ arthritis to such a degree that she seems almost able-bodied at times. What interests Walsh and screenwriter Sherry White isn’t Lewis’ disability, but the other obstacles that stood between her and the unlikely success she found as a painter.
As played by Sally Hawkins, who taps into the same kind of upbeat energy she brought to her career-launching turn as Poppy in Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky,” Maud impresses not so much for her perseverance — the opening scene demonstrates the enormous effort she must summon to lift brush to canvas — but for her indefatigable optimism. Cut out of her family inheritance by a no-good brother (Zachary Bennett), she went to live with her spinster aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) in Nova Scotia, who treats her like a feeble-brained burden, forbidding her from partaking in any form of amusement. Seeking a degree of independence, Maud replies to a help-wanted ad posted by local fish seller Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) for a live-in housekeeper, though the working conditions are hardly better than indentured servitude.
And yet, stuck living with this brusque, grunting ogre of a man (whom Hawke plays with an affected surliness that sounds like Harrison Ford, had he been raised by bears), and all but confined to the tiniest house you’ve ever seen, Maud manages to find happiness. In real life, she had learned to paint as a child, rendering small watercolor scenes on greeting cards which she later sold for money. In the film, where it’s more dramatically expedient to invent a “eureka” moment, she discovers a small pot of house paint among Everett’s things and takes the initiative of sprucing up an old shelf with a fresh coat of spring green, running her fingers through the liquid in a state of mild artistic ecstasy.
Once started, Maud can’t help herself, and before long, she’s painting everything in sight with those primitive-looking tulips and birds and things — the walls, the windows, small scraps of wood that Everett had salvaged from his work at the orphanage and local fish-peddling rounds. She almost immediately begins signing her work with Everett’s last name, and after a short period of living under this Neanderthal’s roof, convinces him that they ought to get married. Meanwhile, Everett, who doesn’t have a romantic bone in his body (defining the hierarchy around his house, he snorts, “There’s me, them dogs, them chickens, then you”), mostly treats her work as invisible, indulging her hobby so long as the house is clean, and yet, there’s a strange tenderness that emerges in their caveman chemistry.
And then an amazing thing happens: A woman from Noo Yawk City (Kari Matchett, all hoity-toity with her fine leather shoes and fancy East Coast accent) offers to buy one of Maud’s paintings, and suddenly, this lonely little woman isn’t just a naïve dabbler, but a bona-fide artist. This, too, is almost certainly an invention, since Lewis had long earned pocket change selling her greeting-card paintings, but it suits the movie’s simplistic version of things. And yet there’s something in the way Matchett looks at Maud that suggests pity, or else some sort of private communion between these two women, in which the well-to-do outsider’s simple act of encouragement has the capacity to transform a life of loneliness and pain.
In addition to capturing local expressions and color, White’s script ever-so-gradually reveals facets of Maud’s past that don’t make it to her Wikipedia listing or the short museum biographies that accompany her work, the most heartbreaking of which involves the fate of an early pregnancy (inspiring the most touching act of tenderness on Everett’s part). And yet, there remains something in the film’s approach — or perhaps its Walsh’s background as a television director — that flattens much of the resulting portrait. The overall effect isn’t nearly so rudimentary as one of Lewis’ paintings might have been, though what little dimension “Maudie” offers is a direct result of Hawkins’ contributions, which draw from her character’s past to add texture to her performance.
While Hawkins could hardly be described as a big woman, she’s a giant compared with the real Maud, a broken, bird-like creature with stooped shoulders, a crooked spine, and tiny, twisted hands. It would be easy — and to many audiences, laughable, given fast-changing standards of performance — for the actress to get lost in trying to replicate Maud’s condition. Instead, Hawkins tries to convey her soul, and a short clip from Diane Beaudry’s National Film Board doc “Maud Lewis: A World Without Shadows,” seen at the end of the narrative, suggests that the actress has captured more in her subject’s eyes than she might have accomplished in her physique.
If it weren’t for Hawkins, there would be little to distinguish “Maudie” from the sort of 16mm filmstrip made for schoolchildren back in the day — not even the film’s charming folk-music score, by Cowboy Junkies guitarist Michael Timmins, is quite enough to set it apart. Cinematographer Guy Godfree incorporates lovely Nova Scotia landscapes, in which gorgeous skies loom large over darker, more monochromatic foregrounds, à la Andrew Wyeth, while production designer John Hand meticulously recreates Maud’s magnum opus — the little 10×12-foot cottage that served as her ever-evolving canvas — both inside and out. Today, the original sits in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Let’s see your kid do that.