Artists are often the most unusual subjects for a biopic, mostly because their stories involve a tremendous amount of introspection, often integral to their artistic process. Most of the time, such films fail to find this delicate balance between narrative and emotional integrity when tacking these subjects, falling into comfortable cliché. It is possible to crack that inner life on film though, and Aisling Walsh’s ‘Maudie’ is one of the more successful attempts in recent years. While it has to rely on a familiar story arc, it finds its own way to make those conventions its own in a gentle, respectful way.
The film looks at the life of Nova Scotian artist Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins), her unexpected rise as an artist, her crippling battle with arthritis and most of all, her tumultuous relationship with her reclusive husband Everett (Ethan Hawke). During the 1930s, she goes to live with Everett in his isolated cottage as his housemaid, but soon their relationship develops - a relationship that is put to the test when the paintings Maud creates for her personal enjoyment begin to garner more attention that she could have imagined and than Everett is comfortable with.
A careful and considered film, ‘Maudie' sparkles with the same honesty and innocence that make Maud’s artworks so fascinating. While it would be easy to make a film entirely built around Maud’s condition, screenwriter Sherry White instead chooses to place the arthritis as simply a fact of life for her and celebrate her tenacity, self-preservation and inherent belief in the goodness in people. She is in no way a victim, either of her condition or her circumstance, and her relationship with her art is without pretentiousness - we can see it as a means of escape and expression, but she simply does it because she likes doing it, regardless of whether others like it or not. Her story also allows White and Walsh to explore the gender dynamics at the time, and how Maud refuses to comply with them in her relationship with Everett. Initially expected to play the expected part of wife and housekeeper, with Everett the pillar around which everything is constructed, she pushes for equal footing with him. This is initially met with resistance and violence, making the first act of the film often unexpectedly confronting, but the armour she has built to protect herself becomes her greatest asset in their relationship. On top of that, the film also explores and challenges views of disability and the expectations others have of those not able-bodied. This forms the emotional heart of ‘Maudie’, this woman’s search for her self-worth when others dismiss her as incapable because of her condition. When others don’t see her potential, Everett unwittingly does, forming the most powerful connection in her life and her only real support system.
The film rests on the strength of its characters, and Maud is a fascinating and unexpected protagonist. I wasn’t familiar with her work before the film, and I doubt many outside of the United States would, but this works as an advantage. Instead of being distracted by her legacy, we’re able to embrace her fully, supported enormously by the gorgeous performance by Sally Hawkins. She has long been one of the most quietly brilliant actors working today, and Maud offers her the chance to really demonstrate her tremendous skill, attention to detail, intelligence and humanity. At no point does her performance ask for sympathy, which only makes the effect of it stronger. She sparked every moment she’s on screen, and is easily the film’s greatest asset. It could not have been a more perfect marriage of character and actor. Ethan Hawke is also wonderful as Everett, as complex a character as Maud and possibly more tragic. His distrust of the world and desire to hide from it stands in the way of his happiness until Maud arrives, and Hawke has no problem exploring the uglier side of him. Their chemistry together is lovely, and you can see the mutual respect in these actors for their craft.
Instead of being distracted by her legacy, we’re able to embrace her fully, supported enormously by the gorgeous performance by Sally Hawkins.
As a piece of filmmaking, there’s a quiet brilliance to it, especially from the direction and cinematography. Walsh shapes the material into something wonderfully gentle, never rushing and allowing moments to sit and breathe. There's an understanding of both the external and internal landscape in her direction as well as in Guy Godfree’s beautiful cinematography, and how the two compliment one another, and while her obvious affection for Maud should be inherent enough to not comment on, in this case it helps to lend the film an almost magical quality. Like Maud’s work, there’s nothing self-conscious about Walsh’s direction, and an integrity that lifts the film further than a lesser director would have been capable of. The only distraction is Michael Timmins' score, the guitar sound the only familiar cliché that doesn’t work. It lends the film an unnecessary twee quality and often works against the drama unfolding. I suspect a stronger score would have made for a stronger film.
It’s hard not to be charmed by ‘Maudie’, even as it hits all the expected narrative beats. She is such a fascinating, endearing character, and the decision to focus on her more fully than what made her famous is a smart one that reaps enormous rewards. Sally Hawkins is radiant as Maud, and her work in this film will hopefully continue to build her reputation. Aisling Walsh has crafted a special little gem with this film that for all its faults, leaves you with a sense that out of hardship and heartache that joy, hope and love can sustain us.