LA Film Fest 2017: Maudie, by David Bax
Aisling Walsh’s Maudie, with its perfect storm of biopic, period piece and conspicuous accents (Nova Scotian, in this case), has all the trappings of an “actor’s showcase.” Usually, such movies are histrionic and programmatic. But Walsh and especially her two lead performers craft their true life tale into something of meaning, an exploration of how compassion, affection and love can change a person over the course of their life, like a river carving out a canyon.
Sally Hawkins stars as Maud Lewis (nee Dowley), a prematurely arthritic young woman who takes a job as a housemaid for Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), a local fisherman and introverted misanthrope. Before long and despite Everett’s immature brutishness, the two marry and Maud spends whatever time she has between cooking and cleaning painting idyllic little scenes in bright colors on pieces of wood (as well as their cabin’s walls and windows). When a vacationing art lover buys one of these and then, upon returning home, commissions more and convinces her friends to do the same, Maud is set on the path to becoming one of Canada’s most well-known and loved folk artists.
Maudie takes place in one of those small towns where everyone knows everything about everyone else; except Walsh would like us understand that’s not really true. Everyone just thinks they know everything. Maud’s physical ailments make her appear slow and doddering; Everett keeps to himself and never learned to write. These traits make it easy for others—even those who should know better, like Maud’s aunt (Gabrielle Rose)—to assume the couple are, to put it bluntly, stupid. In Everett’s case, that may not be entirely unfair but Walsh’s point is that it takes more time, intimacy and heartache to truly get to know a person than most folks are willing to undertake.
Luckily, cinema gives the viewer shortcuts in the form of concentration when it comes to understanding people. And, thanks to two stellar performances, we get to know Maud and Everett quite well. Hawke at first appears to be doing an imitation of Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade but we eventually come to see how Everett’s bricked-up humanity starts to peak through the cracks, coaxed out by Maud’s unwavering and unspoken belief that it exists at all. Hawkins is the lead, though, and her work, from the technical to the ineffable, is simply perfect. She ages decades over the course of the picture and does most of it with her body and face, with only minor assistance from the make-up department. Through it all, she brings Maud to life as a fiery iconoclast in the form of a quiet, kind wallflower.
More than 40 years pass in the telling of Maud’s story but Walsh never puts any text on screen marking the year or the passing of time. Instead, like Orson Welles in The Magnificent Ambersons, she puts it all in the mise en scène. Cars modernize, buildings get new coats of paint, businesses change hands. And, all the while, the married couple maintain in their world of two in a roadside shack with no electricity or plumbing.
Maud and Everett weren’t young when they were wed (she was 34 and he was 40) but the movie suggests that, in a sense, their lives began when they met. Up until then, they were each alone. Maudie is, at its core, a graceful illustration of what it means to truly have another person in your life and how it can improve you.