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She holds the paintbrush in her mangled left hand, dips it into a tiny reservoir of green, then gently but firmly presses it against the wall, adding a stem to the flower. It is a delicate process enacted by a delicate woman, a scene submerged in shadows through which only the paint shines through. This is Maud Lewis, one of the most famous folk artists of the 20th century.
Maudie is a slow, earnest film that pleasantly subverts the narrow-minded hagiography we expect from the story of an artist. Films of this kind have come to resemble paint-by-numbers: The artist endures unimaginable hardships, which they spin into timeless art like gold from straw. All of that happens in Maudie, directed sturdily by Aisling Walsh, but it’s working from a different canvas.The filmmakers aren’t interested in explaining Maud’s art. They respect her too much to seek ownership of it.
Crippled by juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, Maud (portrayed by Sally Hawkins) possesses a sacred joy in a body worn down by life. She has always depended on others, but after her parents die and her brother sells their childhood home, she must learn to fend for herself. She answers an ad at the general store from Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), a terse fish peddler, looking for a “housemaid.” When she knocks on the door of his Nova Scotia home, he responds, “I’m looking for a woman.” With just a single bed in his two-room country house, it’s clear he means what he says. Maud moves in, and while she adjusts to the oppressive instincts of her new boss, landlord, and ersatz boyfriend, she finds a brush and starts painting the walls to brighten her caged life.
Hawkins gives a magnetic performance, while Hawke is never entirely convincing as the brutal Irishman. With his greasy hair and goatee, he looks too much like the young faux-rebel he played in Reality Bites, and his brusqueness feels like a pose. Then again, maybe that’s what was intended. With Maud bringing sunshine into their dingy home, Everett softens considerably and becomes the sensitive, loving guy Maud deserves. He becomes, in other words, Ethan Hawke. He and Hawkins convincingly portray an unorthodox but successful marriage between two damaged souls.
After a New York socialite on vacation falls for Maud’s work, the film traces her sudden rise in popularity. CBS News does a profile on her and Everett, and Richard Nixon—then the Vice President—requests two of her paintings for the White House, but success never changes Maud. She and Everett continue selling her work from their stoop, as Walsh’s film comes to resemble a cinematic adaptation of the idyllic backstory many urbanites impose onto folk art. If only we could all move to the country, they say, things would be different.
Maybe the answer is love, not land. Maudie ends up succeeding by staying focused on its romance, instead of using it to justify the art. Maud and Everett are difficult people to spend time with, but as a pair, they just work. When he first rolls over onto her in bed, she squeaks, “Are you gonna do that? We’d better get married.” He grunts back, “Costs money.” She shrugs. “Only if you invite people and stuff.” And so they get married. If only life or love were so simple.
Maudie opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema.