Into our suffocatingly aggrieved world comes “Maudie,” so striking for its portrait of a woman who has every reason to surrender to pessimism but does not.
It’s the fact-based story of Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins), a folk art painter who lived in rural Nova Scotia in a home without running water or electricity, the latter certainly missing from her strange marriage to Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke).
Maud became renowned as a painter only late in life; for most of it she was a disadvantaged and disabled woman dealing stoically and heroically with the formidable obstacles life placed in her path.
Lewis was born with physical defects that led her to leave school at an early age, but she grew up relatively happy with loving parents, until they died and she lived with a less-loving aunt.
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This is where “Maudie” begins, and where we see Maud make her first gesture of independence. She walks out on her aunt and agrees (during the Depression) to take a job as a live-in maid for a difficult hermit named Everett (Ethan Hawke).
Everett, who sells fish and collects junk, is regarded by the locals as a kook, and not a benign one — he’s temperamental, defiantly reclusive, irrational. Hawke plays him as a man who today would probably be diagnosed as mentally ill, somewhere on the spectrum. His condition has made him an outcast, which Maud sees as a point of commonality, even if Everett lacks the humanity or intelligence to agree.
So commences their strange cohabitation. Everett is impulsive, miserly, abusive, Maud resourcefully maneuvering him into something resembling a deal they both can live with — a mutual reckoning of duties and obligations that end up including sex and marriage.
Maud eventually gets what she truly wants: supplies and a space to paint. When she can’t purchase materials, she paints the house itself. Its decorative boards and panels and shutters have made it a national landmark in Nova Scotia, still visited by streams of tourists.
Maud’s delightful art becomes a local and national sensation (after she’s featured in a television documentary), and its appeal is obvious. It’s suffused with a contagious happiness — smiling critters, budding flowers, upbeat snapshots of pleasant rural life, which director Aisling Walsh complements with her own ruggedly beautiful portrait of the Canadian countryside (the movie was actually filmed in Newfoundland, to the consternation of some Canadians).
Hawkins — small and mighty as usual — draws her energy from the quiet courage in Maud’s drive to create, to modify and adorn her bleak world with the images that express the contentment she knew as a child.
Here’s a question: Is the mildly reformed Everett also a product of Maud’s creative skill? Is he, to use the modern term, a kind of installation? Viewed this way, the movie could be seen as a humane version of Neil LaBute’s “The Shape of Things.”
Others may see too much passivity in the way she endures Everett’s tyrannical outbursts, but “Maudie” makes it heartbreakingly clear that in this time and in this place, the discarded and outcast Maud had few options but to make the best of things.
Maybe she knew her sorrows would die with her, and the optimism she painted would not.
(At the Rio and Tivoli.)
Rated PG-13 for some thematic content and brief sexuality.