Sally Hawkins’ extraordinary performance drives the unusual biographical drama Maudie, the story of folk artist Maud Lewis. Afflicted with a variety of physical ailments, we meet Maud in her 30s when she’s still living with her waspish aunt, who endures her presence only because Maud’s unfeeling brother pays her. The time is 1938 and the setting is a small, remote fishing village in Nova Scotia. Another of the local misfits—to put it mildly—is fish peddler Everett Lewis, played with conviction by Ethan Hawke. He is the oddest of oddballs, an orphan who had his cabin moved by oxen to be away from people in town. When he posts a hand-written note in the general store asking for a cleaning woman Maud steals the piece of paper so no one else will see it. By applying for the job she escapes the dead-end life she’s living with her aunt and seizes her one chance for independence.
Maudie is the most unconventional love story I’ve ever seen. Maud is indomitable, in spite of everything life has thrown at her, but Everett is unremittingly gruff, even cruel. He puts up with Maud because she refuses to leave; she endures his misanthropic manner because she has no choice.
I don’t know how close to the truth Sherry White’s script may be, but this much is true: Maud Lewis had a compulsion to paint and began to attract attention for her childlike folk art. Her hobby eventually blossomed into a career. Director Aisling Walsh and her team replicated the tiny, unheated house where the couple lived for decades, its walls and windows covered with Maud’s artwork. The original resides on the grounds of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
I marvel at Sally Hawkins’ empathetic performance in its physicality as well as its soulful sincerity. Yet I never quite forgot I was watching an actress at work, and I would say the same for Ethan Hawke, who tightens his face into a permanent scowl in order to capture the severity of his character. They both give their all for this movie and while I admire their efforts I also found myself at arm’s length.
Maudie scores high for good intentions and solid work by its stars. Its story is one-of-a-kind but I wish I hadn’t felt so conscious of the wheels turning as it unfolded.