How do you find happiness when the cards are stacked against you? Director Aisling Walsh’s Maudie - the true-life story of the beloved Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis - doesn’t directly address this question. Yet her answer comes in a disarming, wonderfully-acted film. As unassuming and gentle as its subject, Maudie breaks your heart with its infectious positivity and an outstanding Sally Hawkins, who can always be relied on for an emotionally honest, big-hearted performance. Hawkins taps into the same upbeat energy she brought to her career-launching turn as “Poppy” in Mike Leigh’s 2008 Happy-Go-Lucky.
We first meet Maud, a smart, good-humored and partially disabled young woman (juvenile arthritis) in the late 1930s amid vast rural landscapes, picturesquely lit by cinematographer Guy Godfree. 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, to break free from her oppressive family Maud replies to a help-wanted ad posted by grouchy local fish seller Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) for a live-in housekeeper. Everett lives in a tiny 12 x 12 shack and the working conditions are hardly better than indentured servitude.
These odd outcasts don’t have a meet-cute and are not a match on paper, yet, over time, they form a unique, loving companionship. In their rocky early days, Maud blocks out Everett’s routine petulance by habitually painting happy murals on the walls and windows of their house, crude flowers, fuzzy cats, chickens and country landscapes. Her art grabs the attention of sophisticated vacationing New Yorker Sandra (Kari Matchett), who compels Maud to hone her craft further. (They develop a friendship that could have used more screen time.) Eventually Maud’s fame grows, reaching far beyond the confines of their small world.
Refreshingly, Maudie quickly proves it has no interest in becoming a heavy-handed art biopic, a la Pollock, nor a schmaltzy, formulaic one that exploits the physical shortcomings of its heroine. Sally Hawkins delves past Maud Lewis’ severe arthritis stricken exterior to capture the inner spirit of this Canadian folk artist. There is an electric volatility to her performance as well as a rare poetic feeling.
Like Maud Lewis’s paintings, the movie Maudie celebrates life’s simple pleasures asking for no pity for its characters. In fact, 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 Footor Frida. Director 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. And yet, stuck living with this brusque, grunting ogre of a man (certainly one of Hawke’s very best performances) Maud manages to find happiness. The film glows with the kind of honest sweetness which is unfortunately a quality seldom seen in current films. Our current dismal era embraces irony and sarcasm and we praise performers who have an “edge” (whatever that is). Sweetness, even authentic non-cloying sweetness, is unfortunately no longer in vogue.
All Maudie asks of you is an open heart. It is one of the most enjoyable, most human movies I have seen for years and is very highly recommended.
Let this warm movie and Hawkins’ warm smile lighten your day.
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