Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Aisling Walsh
Screenwriter: Sherry White
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Ethan Hawke, Kari Matchett, Gabrielle Rose, Zachary Bennett
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 11/25/17
Opens: June 16, 2017. Streaming October 10, 2017
One might at first wonder why a biopic about a folk artist from a tiny town in Nova Scotia could be made into an involving drama. Granted: the life of Maud Lewis might make for engaging documentaries, and sure enough the Film Board of Canada did release “Maud Lewis—A World Without Shadows,” “The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis, and “I Can Make Art.” If any other performer were chosen for a full-scale dramatic work on Maud Lewis, the film could be raising dust. Consider that Aisling Walsh lucked out by putting Sally Hawkins in the lead with a performance that will be remembered well during awards season. And pair her up with Ethan Hawke as her abusive husband, and you have a Hawke-Hawkins treat which serves to illuminate the life of a folk artist who is doubtless better known in her native Canada than here in New York.
“Maudie” opens during the 1930s in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia, a town so small that it probably could not support a store for selling fish. No problem for Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), who peddles his fish door to door to people who earn so little money that he would be regularly owed. His solitary life is about to change when he advertises for a maid, someone to clean and perhaps to cook, since he is out plying his trade fourteen hours a day. Everett is a perennial grump who, after telling applicant Maude to “get out” later takes her on. As for her part, she has had enough of living with a stern maiden aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose), having managed to get stuck with her when her parents died, her cruel brother Charles Cowley (Zachary Bennett) inherits the house, and believes that his sister, afflicted with a serious case of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, needs to be taken care of.
Not only is Maud the independent sort but she chafes under Aunt Ida’s treatment of her, believing that her charge is feeble-minded. Nor is Everett much better; he complains that his shack is not clean, regularly threatens to dismiss her, but begins to change when Maud takes up painting and brings money into the household. That she and Everett would marry seems a long shot as she is considered a cripple, but stranger things go on in this remote corner of Canada. Who would believe that Sandra (Kari Matchett),a sophisticated woman from New York who is spending time in the town, would take notice of the paintings, buy some, and allow Maud to begin the journey from a hunched over, wisp-talking and complaisant woman to a national celebrity.
The film strips Maud’s life to essentials: she believes that her baby was deformed and buried; she chafes under the stern rule of her aunt; she meets a fish peddler who hires her as a housekeeper; she paints on the sly, at first, then is encouraged by Everett to continue as money is coming in. Because of Sally Hawkins’s tour-de-force performance and her chemistry with Ethan Hawke, and against a background of Nova Scotia winters and hardscrabble life, “Maudie” becomes a movie that could prompt its audience to take out the Kleenex while at the same time being engrossed in one of the year’s most powerful, though understated, performances.
The film was shot in Newfoundland because the Stephen McNeil government eliminated the Nova Scotia’s film credit program.
Rated PG-13. 115 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics OnlineGrade – A-