Maudie is hit-or-miss, but you’ll probably bawl anyway. Its creators have elected to dramatize nothing but the things that traditional narrative features usually botch. The film, directed by Aisling Walsh, surveys the life of a beloved artist, Nova Scotia’s self-taught folk painter Maud Lewis, who produced scores of cheerily primitive — and marvelously composed — studies of her world, despite the pain she suffered whenever she held a brush.
Rheumatoid arthritis in her youth had left Lewis’ hands and shoulders twisted in on themselves. That means the filmmakers face not only the pressing challenges of dramatizing artistic creation while reducing the complex sprawl of a life to a cozy three-act structure. They have to do so while honoring the reality of Lewis’ disability.
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That they at least achieve this much is a testament to Sally Hawkins, who plays Maud as a tiny, peppery fighter, her shoulders hunched in but her eyes defiant and her smile quick and wild. Hawkins can brighten up a bad or a routine movie, as she did with Paddington or her pair of Woody Allens, and she blazes like the sun in a good or a singular production, as she did in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, another portrait of gutsy optimism. Maudie is no Happy-Go-Lucky: The script, by Sherry White, tends to hit one note per scene, showing Maud beleaguered or abused or hopeful or content; only occasionally do the filmmakers hit a complex chord the way that Leigh always manages.
The best of these moments come before Maud has blossomed into artistic maturity. Thirtyish, facing homelessness, bereft of options, she talks a gruff bachelor fish-peddler (Ethan Hawke) into taking her on as a housekeeper in his grimed and cluttered playhouse of a home. The place is so tiny that he insists she sleep beside him in his bed, just as he once did with the boys in the orphanage. This is small-town Canada in the 1930s, but Maud sees no other options and will risk a scandal for room and board. Inevitably, this hard and often cruel man’s grunts turn impassioned. He rolls onto her and, with matter-of-fact flatness, Maud tells him right there in the dark that to do that they’ll have to be married.
The scene turns even more intimate as she tells him about a baby she once had and lost. Hawkins nimbly negotiates these shifts of mood, showing us at once Maud’s fear, her intelligence, her practicality, her heartbreak — and then, in a parallel scene later in the film, her own silent passion. The man, Everett Lewis, is exposed as some brute-elemental force that shrewd Maud has discovered how to direct. Hawke’s role doesn’t demand much of him besides confusion, rages and signaling — through stiff and wary kindness — that Maud was right about whatever Everett and she had been arguing about several scenes before.
The film is too often repetitive: Everett storms off, stung by her willfulness or eventual fame, and then, the next day, he slumps back, lesson learned. The script offers less insight into Lewis’ creative life than any of the Canadian news reports or documentaries about her life available on YouTube, but Walsh is good at the physicality of painting: dabbing brush on paints, touching brush to the wall or the wood slats that often served as Maud's canvas. (The score, by Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies, is an asset, full of wistful guitar and pedal steel.) Hawkins crumples her frame more and more as the film goes on but as Lewis weakens, the home around her bursts from farm-shack dreariness to full Oz color: Her vibrant flowers, like Hawkins’ ebullience, are a springtime of the heart.