Maud Lewis walked with an exaggerated bent, the result of juvenile-onset rheumatoid arthritis. She had no home, as her parents both died before she turned 30 and her brother sold the family homestead, and little education; her only obvious passion was painting, which she did by gripping brushes tightly in her already-gnarled hands. Though she lived in a one-room home in Nova Scotia, in relative poverty, for all of her life, she became a well-known folk artist; an object of cult delight and fascination, eventually notorious enough that then-Vice President Richard Nixon requested a work from her.
As the subject of the biopic Maudie, Maud (played by Sally Hawkins) is fascinatingly opaque. Hawkins plays her as always possessing a kind of coy, rueful smile, but it’s one that betrays a hardscrabble life marked by trauma and abuse. The director Aisling Walsh tries to portray her protagonist even-handedly without swerving into outright misery or rose-tinted romanticism. This is not so much a film about her art as the strange conditions it arose from—especially concerning Maud’s difficult romance with her fisherman husband Everett (Ethan Hawke), a man to whom she was first a live-in maid, who nurtured and encouraged her art while also often treating her subserviently.
Like so many true-life biopics, Maudie feels annoyingly sincere at times, but it does well to present the facts of the Lewis marriage bluntly. Maud and Everett Lewis’s relationship can be tough to watch—he’s at times plainly abusive (physically and emotionally), and at other times hurtful and dismissive. The circumstances of their getting together are unusual, to say the least: Maud showed up at Everett’s house in response to an advertisement for a live-in maid, he insisted on her sleeping in his bed, quickly made a romantic advance, and they were married several weeks later. Eventually, she began to clean the house less and paint more frequently, accompanying Everett as he peddles fish to try and sell her work.
Walsh and the film’s writer Sherry White could try and create easy connections between Maud’s tough upbringing and her tumultuous marriage and her art, but they’d feel facile. Maud’s bright, vibrant work spoke of a world more delightful than her own, one dotted with pastel-colored birds and boats, filled with rolling green landscapes and sky-blue seas. Rather than portray some eureka moment, as so many artist biopics strive to do, Walsh’s camera quietly observes as the paintings begin to pour out of Maud, who usually worked on incredibly small canvases (she also painted directly onto her one-room home’s tiny window frames) because of the limited range of her arthritic hands.
Hawkins has always been a wonderfully charismatic screen presence, but her Maud is far less ebullient than the protagonist of Happy-Go-Lucky and less outspoken than her Oscar-nominated work as the blue-collar sister of Cate Blanchett’s character in Blue Jasmine. She invests the bulk of her performance in that mysterious smile and her darting eyes—Maud always seems to understand more than she’s conveying in what she says. She puts up with Everett’s closed-off chauvinism and they build up a strange sort of affection over their years together, though a lot between them is obviously unsaid.
Hawke is the louder of the pair and seems to get more of the film’s dramatic weight as a result, but his performance is wonderfully deferential to Hawkins’s. His Everett is an oafish brute at first glance, but his behavior becomes something more fascinating when refracted through her love for him. Hawke does a fantastic job presenting Everett plainly, rather than injecting him with movie-star charisma; his fits of rage and rarer moments of (largely unspoken) compassion never feel like showboating for the camera.
Maudie’s biggest success is Walsh’s interest in depicting the environment from which art springs, rather than laying out some simple emotional cause for its generation. Maud’s eye, and the specificity of her work, remains mostly mysterious and obscure; it’s the simpler facts of her life that Walsh depicts with assured authenticity. That straightforwardness, along with the actors’ lived-in work, make Maudie worth seeing. This is neither a forgettable biopic nor a piece of shameless Oscar-bait; it’s a film that feels no need to make easy judgments about its subject, or any vague assumptions about the origins and meaning of her work.