Madeleine Copley | 1/09/2017

A biopic of questionable accuracy, Maudie has little of the vibrancy and colour of its subject's art.

Aisling Walsh's Maudie (starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke) is based on the true story of Maud Lewis (Hawkins) a Canadian woman with a disability hired as a housekeeper by a taciturn and aggressive fish pedlar, Everett Lewis (Hawke). Although at times the passage of time is unmarked and unclear, the film spans three decades, charting the growth of Maud's fame as a folk artist alongside the development of her relationship with her employer and later husband.


Sally Hawkins' performance (although perhaps redolent of her breakthrough role in Mike Leigh's Happy Go Lucky) is without question the film's saving grace. Hawkins is wonderful to watch, painting a portrait of a woman who, despite her perceived fragility leads a full and vibrant inner life. Hawkins gives us a woman determined to participate fully in life and experience both its joys and sorrows of which there are many. On the other hand, Hawke does his best with a script which allows his character barely measurable growth - despite the accuracy of the way in which scriptwriter Sherry White and Walsh portray his character, it would have made for more interesting cinema if Everett had broken from the stereotypically silent rural Canadian man.


Given that the film is set in rural Nova Scotia during the first half of the twentieth century in rural Nova Scotia, it is not surprising that some attitudes presented in the film are out of step with those of the modern audience, perhaps most notably the physical and emotional abusiveness of Hawke's character who wastes no time in ensuring Maud knows her place, that is, below even the dogs and the chickens. The difficulty of some of these scenes, coupled with the painful shots of Maud painstakingly trying to please her husband are draining. The few moments of tenderness between the couple feel discordant and almost as if their inclusion is intended to justify or excuse Everett's cruel treatment of his wife.


For a story that is, ostensibly, meant to be one about love, there seems to be little love and certainly no romance between the two main characters, their eventual marriage seems to be for little more than convenience (despite the joy Maud touchingly finds in it). Whilst this might be biographically accurate, it does not make for enervating cinema. Indeed, the shots of Nova Scotian country scenery hold infinitely more charm than the dreary [and domestically violent] "romance" at the centre of the plot.


Similarly, as a biopic about an artist, Maudie gives Maud's brilliant artwork very little attention. Perhaps as a result of its focus upon the interpersonal drama of Maud and Everett's relationship, the film renders its subject's artwork little more than escapism. Whilst we are treated to shots of Maud's greeting cards, larger board paintings and whimsically decorated cottage, these feel like nothing more than window dressing, or a reminder that the protagonist is, indeed, an artist. There is no exploration of Maud's inspiration and artistic process and this reviewer can't help but think that such an inclusion would have done much to capture Maud Lewis' spirit of playful joy in art and in life.


The beleaguered tone of Walsh's film does little to capture the joy and vitality of Maud's paintings. The bright and cheerful paintings of Nova Scotian life are presented to us not so much as art in and of themselves, but instead as little more than a vehicle by which their painter can escape the grim realities of her humdrum existence.