Art work

A refreshingly original biopic on Canadian folk artist

Opens Friday, July 21. Starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke. Directed by Aisling Walsh. Pageant Theatre. Rated PG-13.
Rated 4.0

Sally Hawkins delivers a tender and tough-minded performance in the title role of this gently fictionalized hard-scrabble biopic.

The eponymous Maudie is one Maud Lewis, a woman in mid-20th century Nova Scotia who, although born with physical defects and cast off by her own family into a grim life of rural poverty, taught herself to paint and eventually received national recognition as a regional “folk artist.”

That may sound like little more than feel-good Oscar bait, for its star and maybe for the film itself. But as directed by Aisling Walsh, Maudie is admirably skimpy on the easy sentiments and unexpectedly rewarding in its evocations of social and emotional complexities that neither the script nor a bare-bones plot summary can convey.

There are several quiet but very welcome surprises in play here. Cinematographer Guy Godfree’s shots of starkly picturesque coastal landscapes register as some of the most vivid and emotionally eloquent moments of the film. Also, while Walsh is a director with a background mainly in TV, her Maudie (with special help from Godfree) thrives on its big-screen sense of setting and atmosphere.

And though it’s not surprising that Hawkins excels in the lead role, there are some unexpected rewards in the ways her performance avoids simplification of character and motive. To some extent, the same can be said of Sherry White’s screenplay.

Hawkins’ mixtures of shy smiles, hunched surrenders, gloomy intensities and angelic flutterings are very much the heart of the matter here. But there’s a good supporting cast on hand and an impressive co-star (Ethan Hawke) as well.

Hawke plays the reclusive, emotionally stunted fish monger who hires Maud as a live-in housemaid and eventually becomes her surly, reluctantly besmitten husband.

The scenes between those two, with their emotional blind spots and out-of-synch social skills, are little gems, touching and incisive, of unromantic romance.

Kari Matchett plays an upper-class New Yorker who “discovers” Maud’s art while sojourning in Canada and is sympathetic to Maud in ways that almost no one else is. Gabrielle Rose brings one small touch of humanity to Maud’s otherwise forbidding Aunt Ida, and Zachary Bennett plays Charley, Maud’s blandly avaricious brother.

The modest, sparingly used folkie string-band score is by Cowboy Junkies guitarist Michael Timmins.