Portrait of a folk artist ….
Ever heard of Canadian artist Maud Lewis? If the answer’s no, you’re not alone. Although, after you’ve seen Aisling Walsh’s Maudie, you’ll come away feeling you know all about her, her art and her marriage. And you’ll have a lump in your throat.
Essentially, this is a two handed bio-pic, about the artist Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins) who lived in Nova Scotia. Despite suffering from arthritis and having lived with her domineering aunt for some time, she decided she needed some independence and went to work as a housemaid. Her employer was the reclusive and difficult Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) and, over time, the two came to love each other and were married, but it was never an easy relationship. At the same time, she developed her artistic talents and became well known in her home country for her charmingly child-like paintings.
As Maud herself observes, “People don’t like it if you’re different.” She has stones thrown at her by the local children, because she’s different to look at: thin, slightly hunched and with an awkward walk, all because of her chronic arthritis. And her choice of employer is somebody else who doesn’t fit in, but in a completely different way. Fish seller Evert lives outside town by himself: illiterate, inarticulate and apparently insensitive to the feelings of others. And Maud is left in no doubt as to her place in his world. The dogs come first, then the chickens and finally Maud herself. But, over time, her love of painting comes to the fore, the paints the walls in the house, paints on the windows and starts making money from her art. Money that goes straight to Everett – she never sees a penny of it – but, after their marriage and once their relationship has found its equilibrium, she becomes mischievously adept at getting her own way.
Everett, however, never completely loses the side of his nature that is, by today’s standards, shocking. Maud has a charming, simple wit of her own and there’s a scene when she exchanges some lighthearted banter with one of his colleagues. It makes you laugh – and the moment turns on a sixpence as Everett puts a stop to it with an act that is northing short of vicious. It’s the first, and last, time he treats her this way, but there are other occasions when his tongue is so savagely hurtful that she has to put some distance between them.
The film’s success is down to the performances of its two leads and they’re both superb. Hawkins is usually something of an acquired taste – her character in Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky still divides opinion – and on the surface her performance here can appear mannered. Until we see the footage at the end of the film of the real Maud, which reveals not only more than a passing facial resemblance but that Hawkins has superbly re-created her stooped stature and awkward gait.
Hawke, however, has the harder job, taking on a character with little to recommend him. It makes his performance all the more impressive. He’s an exceptionally difficult person, downright unpleasant, yet there’s the lingering impression that, under different circumstances, he might have been a different person. In the film’s final moments of the film, when he brings in the “paintings for sale” sign, he breaks your heart.
Filmed on location in Canada, it boasts some simply but beautifully shot scenery: the snowy, wintery sequences are enough to make you shiver. But the tone is always warm, tender and compassionate, even if sadness is never far away, either in the past or present. Maudie is the kind of film that will slip in under the radar and slip out again. Like Maud and Everett, it’s different and can’t be easily categorised. But it could easily become something of an undiscovered gem.
Maudie is in cinemas from Friday, 4 August.
Listen to our exclusive interview with Maudie‘s director Aisling Walsh here.