Maudie: A Showcase For The Spectacular Sally Hawkins

Maud Lewis was a renowned Canadian folk artist whose works sell for thousands of dollars today, yet she spent her lifetime in the early twentieth century in a stifling one-room house in rural Nova Scotia, suffering from a variety of severe health problems and birth defects. The story of the great artist whose fame eluded them during their lifetime is a common one, as is the variation in which said artist meets a tragic end.

Yet where Maud differs from these other unlucky figures is that, despite her difficulties, her art came from a place of pure happiness. Her worldview remained one full of bright colors and the beauty of nature, despite living in near-poverty conditions until her death at age 67. Maudie, written by Canadian actress and filmmaker Sherry White and directed by Irish filmmaker Aisling Walsh, tells the story of Maud Lewis’ unique life with a focus on her unlikely romance with her husband, Everett. Yet while Maud’s story is a powerful one, it’s the dysfunctional, borderline abusive relationship at the center of Maudie — and the way the film romanticizes it — that prevents the otherwise lovingly crafted film from being truly enjoyable.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

Maud Dowley (Sally Hawkins) is a sweet, almost childlike young woman whose spirit remains unbowed despite the severe juvenile rheumatoid arthritis that plagues her body. With their parents dead, Maud’s brother Charles entrusts her care to their strict Aunt Ida, not trusting Maud to live on her own. Maud spends her days painting colorful pictures and occasionally ventures out to a jazz club at night, much to the chagrin of Ida. Tired of being treated like a child by her aunt, Maud seizes the first glimpse of freedom that comes her way: a job as a live-in housemaid with a grouchy and antisocial fish peddler, Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke).

Despite Everett’s horrible reputation in their small Nova Scotian town — a reputation that, based on his rude and often downright cruel treatment of Maud, is completely earned — Maud stands by him, and eventually marries him. When Everett demands that she make the tiny, one-room house they live in look nice, Maud responds by covering the walls with her cheerful paintings. Everett is disgruntled to see how much time Maud spends painting instead of doing her assigned chores — that is, until one of Everett’s customers offers to pay them an extra ten cents for every card that Maud includes with her fish delivery.

Soon, Maud’s work is in high demand in Nova Scotia and beyond; even Vice-President Richard Nixon writes to request one of her paintings. (Maud and Everett agree that unless he sends along payment like any other customer, he’s not getting anything from them.) Her art is popular not because of any intricate craft; in fact, her paintings are so rudimentary that one shop owner scoffs that his five-year-old could do better. But the sheer joy and playfulness that comes through in her work, despite the rough life she has led, is infectious.

Yet despite the increasing amounts of money and fame bestowed on the Lewis household, Everett remains grouchy, and grows increasingly annoyed that his wife is held in such high esteem while he is not; he squirrels away the money his wife’s paintings bring in and barely spends a penny to improve the tiny home they live in. The couple bicker with each other even as Maud grows increasingly ill with her arthritis, which threatens to make it impossible for her to walk, let alone paint. Yet despite Everett’s gruffness, one can occasionally spy a streak of tenderness towards Maud running through his grizzled heart.

All Hail Sally Hawkins

Maudie is a beautifully painted portrait of the artist, thanks to an utterly delightful performance by Sally Hawkins. Maud Lewis is a spiritual sister to her Oscar-nominated role of Poppy in Mike Leigh’s powerful ode to unabashed optimism, Happy-Go-Lucky, so it’s no wonder that Hawkins is also excellent here. As Maud, she can break your heart into a million pieces with just a slight tip of her head or awkward twitch of her hands.

Unlike other performers in such obviously Oscar-bait roles, Hawkins conveys Maud’s disability subtly and without relying on over-the-top, cartoonish tics, even as as her arthritis worsens and causes her spine to practically curl up like a snail shell. When she waddles with increasingly difficulty down the bleak, dusty Nova Scotian roads, one feels incredible sympathy for her plight; her performance is so natural that she convinces you of her pain, not to mention her will to overcome it. You’re left in awe of Maud, not Hawkins‘ acting skills, which in my mind is the mark of a great performance.

Where the film takes an unpleasant turn is where Maud’s relationship with Everett is concerned. One cannot judge the real-life Maud and Everett too much; after all, it’s impossible to know all of the particulars of their marriage and how he treated her in their private moments. I am sure the true nature of their relationship was quite complex — perhaps too complex to be accurately portrayed in under two hours of screen time. Yet based on the film’s version of Everett, I cannot fathom why such a good-natured woman would remain with such a horrifyingly misanthropic man.

Initially, Everett and his tiny house offer Maud the only chance to escape her aunt Ida’s watchful eyes and live her own life, yet it quickly becomes clear that life with Everett is its own special kind of imprisonment. Maud, as positive as ever, makes the best of her situation, and refuses to stop painting even when Everett grumbles about the time she devotes to it. Eventually, Everett concedes to his wife’s desires, and starts doing more of the chores himself so Maud can continue to while her days away painting in the corner.

Nonetheless, the majority of the scenes between the two of them are difficult to watch due to the one-way toxicity of their relationship. Everett verbally abuses Maud and throws one complaint after another in her direction, constantly reminding her that he is the boss and she is not. At one point early in their time together, he actually socks her in the mouth in front of someone; while his behavior improves after Maud threatens to leave him, it never rises to the level that one would expect a husband to treat his wife. Whereas Maud is endlessly sunny in disposition, Everett is a blustery thundercloud that threatens to strike down everything around him.

Beauty and Ugliness in Equal Measure

Such is the distasteful nature of Everett and his treatment of Maud that it’s impossible to feel for him, even during the few moments of tenderness that he shows his wife. These scenes, which in any other context would seem quite romantic, instead have a bitter aftertaste. The result is that even in Maud and Everett’s best moments, you cannot root for them; you only want her to leave him. Their relationship is nothing to aspire to; it is not quirky or cute in its dysfunction, it’s ugly.

Maudie is at its best when it focuses on the titular artist and the incredibly talented woman who portrays her. Her attitude is an inspiration and her artwork lifts the spirits. Yet there is no denying that her story is problematic as a result of her relationship with Everett, and that casts a shadow over an otherwise bright film.

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