Film Review: Maudie

Strong performances anchor this love story between an artistic beauty and her beast.
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With its sweeping score and adulatory critics’ reviews, the trailer for Maudie makes the film look like rather standard biopic treacle. Which is too bad. Although it often toes that line which separates heightened emotionality from saccharinity, its transgressions are brief. There is a loveliness that hangs about the film. And its lead actors, Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke, are wonderful.

Hawkins is the titular hero, a woman in 1930s Nova Scotia who has an unnamed disability that causes her to limp and which makes her hands curl into fists that only tighten as she ages. (The real Maud likely had juvenile arthritis.) She’s cheerful, good with numbers and artistic, but speaks haltingly and has trouble controlling her emotions. When the film opens, Maud’s brother has sold the family home and left her to the care of a spinster aunt who is obdurately unfeeling, as spinster aunts are wont to be. Maud, however, is loath to be subjected, and rebels against Aunt Ida’s rule by answering a local advertisement for a cleaning woman. She moves in with Everett Lewis (Hawke), a bachelor fisherman who lives in a 10 by 12-foot house without plumbing or electricity (or more than one bed), hangs about the orphanage where he was raised, and is pricklier than a rose twined round a cactus. He is, at heart, a good man, but it takes some time for that goodness to blossom.

In the meantime, he treats Maud appallingly (“It’s me, them dogs, them chickens, then you”). Maud vacillates between defiance and abjection. After one violent confrontation, she seeks solace in her paints. At great risk she decorates the walls of Everett’s kitchen, with flowers and birds and chickens. But luck is with her, and it soon appears on her doorstep in the form of a wealthy New York client of Everett’s, a woman named Sandra (Kari Matchett). With the eye of the cosmopolitan—part discerning, part avaricious—Sandra clocks Maud’s talent. If Everett blossoms into a good man, albeit someone who never stops being man with all the flaws the word implies, Maud comes into her own as an artist. Her career and their love progress apace.

The real Maud was a painter of the Art Naïve movement. She had no formal training or education, and her work was characterized by a “childlike simplicity.” The White House ordered two of her paintings during Nixon’s presidency. The wall decorations shown in the film are characteristic; she undertook a bright and comprehensive overhaul of Everett’s home, until it became known as “the painted house.” Archival footage that plays at the end of the movie testifies to the fantastic work of production designer John Hand, whose recreation of the couple’s abode is divertingly faithful to its model.

But Maudie belongs not to the stage but to its players. Both Hawkins and Hawke are terrifically physical actors. With her pronounced limp, cheeriness and fits of passion, Maud could easily have been played as caricature, or worse: as Oscar-bait. But Hawkins is humorously impish, the muscles in her face elastic and capable of a range of subtle feeling. Hawke, likewise, has eyes that silently belie his brutal actions or gruff words, and which do the work onscreen that interior monologue does in a novel. Together, they demonstrate the considerable power of the human face to compel and make one strongly feel.

In fact, both leads are so good, their talent sometimes highlights the deficiencies of the script. Sherry White’s screenplay nicely takes its time building their relationship, but when we arrive at moments of emotional conflict, it too often evinces a disappointing mistrust of the audience. When you have actors this good, they don’t need to speak every emotion their characters feel, and certainly not when those emotions manifest in clichés, such as “People don’t like those who’re different.” It’s frustrating to watch a scene devalued by words better left unspoken, particularly when you have at your disposal two people whose faces are more eloquent than any profound explication ever could be. Sometimes, in art as in life, words simply spoil things. One wishes Maudie had shown greater restraint in this regard.

But what Maudie leaves you with is a pleasant aftertaste. It dramatizes an interesting life with excellent actors. Like Maud’s paintings, it is, quite simply, nice.

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