Sally Hawkins gives a standout performance in “Maudie” playing the real-life Maud Lewis, a self-taught artist living in the 1930s in the wilds of Nova Scotia whose paintings of flowers, landscapes, and animals had a transcendent, childlike simplicity. She was a prime example of what is known as the Naive Art school. What makes her creations especially poignant is that Maud was hobbled for most of her life by a hunched back and increasingly severe rheumatoid arthritis. A chain smoker, she developed emphysema. Her social skills, to put it mildly, were deficient.
Despite these challenges, and an uncaring brother and aunt, Maud was ever hopeful as a young woman that she would find happiness. There’s a wonderful scene early on in a local dance club where she beams her big brown eyes in expectation of the good time that never arrives. At age 34 and virtually penniless, she takes a job for very low wages as a housekeeper for Everett (Ethan Hawke), a gruff fishmonger and scrap collector who lives by himself in a windswept shack with no running water or electricity. Although she’s a terrible housecleaner and initially he treats her with abusive disdain, eventually, these two misfits marry. She tells him, with a smirk, “We’re like a pair of odd socks.”
As resistant as I am to tour de force performances about people with disabilities – too often the actors have their eyes fixed squarely on an Oscar statuette – I must admit that a few of these showstoppers have been magnificent. Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot,” for example, gave what is probably one of the half-dozen or so best performances ever committed to film.
Hawkins’s work in “Maudie,” directed by Aisling Walsh and written by Sherry White, isn’t in that class, but it’s an eminently respectable and emotionally satisfying piece of work. Even though her appearance here, complete with gnarled frame and tangled hair, is obviously “dramatic” – at times she resembles a scrunched older version of Lily Tomlin’s character Edith Ann as seen on, among other programs, “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” – she never plays to the balcony. She manages the difficult feat of making Maud appear both deeply extroverted and powerfully introverted.
The matchup with Hawke’s Everett doesn’t quite work because, however hard he tries, Ethan Hawke is still Ethan Hawke. Looking perpetually like he just rolled out of an old sleeping bag, Everett is such a monumental sourpuss that you wait expectantly for him to eventually recognize his good fortune in landing someone as devoted as Maud.
Though he does shape up as time goes on, and even encourages Maud to display her cards and paintings – they became a source of income – he still comes across more like a theatrical conceit than a full-fledged character. This is not something you could ever accuse Hawkins’s Maud of being.
The odd-couple pairing does yield its occasional rewards, though. The collision between Everett’s monosyllabic gruffness and Maud’s chatty ditherings is inherently funny, and so is her insistence on marriage before sex, which he finds confounding. When Everett starts taking over the housework, the battle of the sexes reaches its apotheosis.
In the end, Maud modestly accepts her recognition as an artist, but much more important to her is the work she made of her life. She says simply, “I was loved.” Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for some thematic content and brief sexuality.)