Watching paint dry
Maud Lewis was a Canadian folk artist who suffered from the lifelong effects of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis that left her stooped and gnarled, barely able to wield a brush. Treated as a dimwitted nuisance by her own family after her parents died in the mid-1930s, she married a local fish peddler in her native Nova Scotia, selling her brightly colored greeting cards and paintings for a few dollars beside the highway that ran past their one-room house. By the time she died in 1970, she had a national reputation, though she and husband Everett still lived in hand-to-mouth poverty.
The Irish-Canadian coproduction Maudie tells her story, with Sally Hawkins as a dogged, diffident Maud and Ethan Hawke as a growling, foul-tempered Everett. As the movie unreels slowly and deliberately, like Maud painting one of her pictures, it’s hard to avoid thinking that its purpose isn’t to dramatize the artistic spirit or triumph over adversity, but simply to win Sally Hawkins an Academy Award.
She might get it, too. Certainly her performance is the best reason to see this sluggish, pinched, claustrophobic little two-handed biopic. Whenever the movie seems about to become downright dreary, which it does often, the spunky light in Hawkins’ eyes rekindles our interest and entices us to hang on for a few more of its 115 minutes.
Another reason is the cinematography of Guy Godfree, who photographs the stark beauty of the Newfoundland locations (standing in for Nova Scotia) in a way that makes us understand why Maud wants to paint it—anybody would.
Otherwise, Maudie rings false much of the time, regardless of how closely it may hew to the facts of Maud’s life. Much of the problem stems from Sherry White’s uneven script, which paradoxically hopscotches through 30-plus years while still taking its own sweet time. It manages to suggest that Maud was Everett’s live-in housemaid for years before they finally married (when in fact it was a matter of weeks). It says outright that she became an art connoisseur’s darling in short order (when in fact she toiled in obscurity until a few years before she died). And memo to White: It wasn’t Vice President Richard Nixon who commissioned paintings from her, it was President Nixon some 15 years later.
Another problem is the disastrous miscasting of Ethan Hawke as Everett. In his hands, Everett isn’t just a grouch or a social misfit; he’s a mean, no-good, abusive son of a bitch. (In archival footage at the end, the real Everett smiles more in three seconds that Hawke does in the whole two hours.) When Maud tells people he’s a good man, it doesn’t sound like the love of a good woman seeing through a gruff exterior; it sounds like the delusional rationalizing of a masochist. The heart of Maudie is clearly supposed to be the love story of these two outcasts, but White’s script, Hawke’s performance and Aisling Walsh’s plodding direction keep undercutting the theme.
But none of them can undercut Sally Hawkins for long. She might want to start working on that speech, just in case.