Maud Lewis lived a modest, unassuming life, only gaining fame when her paintings became a small sensation in her Nova Scotian town and beyond. Today she is known in some Canadian circles as one of the country’s finest folk artists, her artwork now being sold for tidy sums of money (one recently went for $45,000). Outside of those circles, she is obscure, making her the perfect subject for a biopic. What better way to introduce people to this remarkable woman’s work than to give her a dignified tribute such as this? Especially when you have the criminally underrated Sally Hawkins giving an astounding performance of quiet restraint to prop up the whole venture. There’s no way you can say no.
And, for the most part, Maudie succeeds in shedding light on Lewis’ tenacity, artistic vision, luminosity and endurance. Who would have known that behind the gentle, smiling face and diminutive frame lay years of pain and struggle? And yet, in spite of it all, she dipped her brushes in colourful paints and gave us nostalgic visions of bright-eyed innocence, works of purity and observation that have understandably held up all these years later. You cannot walk out of this film without loving her beautiful soul. The tone of it is heavily melancholic, and its dark revelations weigh heavily on the mind, but Maudie’s spirit rises above it all so that, even if you cannot smile, there is still comfort.
I cannot understate the melancholy, though. It’s hard to watch Maudie become a constant whipping post for all of life’s ills, some of which were wrought upon her by her thorny, unsociable husband Everett, who interestingly is left largely unredeemed in the end (though the nature of his death—a homicide after his house was broken into nine years after Maudie’s passing—is never revealed to the audience). True, he softens towards his wife in her final years, but I’m glad screenwriter Sherry White does not try to exonerate him for all the abuse and neglect he showered on Maudie during their marriage. Nor does Ethan Hawke attempt to make him lovable, instead emphasizing his remoteness and moodiness. I thought Everett was a thorough shit from beginning to end, and judging by some of the biographical material available on the Lewis’, historians seem to agree.
So while the film is, in one sense, a tough watch, it’s still a mighty good one, and its thoughtful pace and poetic sensibilities were not lost on me. Hawkins, as abovementioned, is stunning, effortlessly embodying Maudie’s physique without ever looking like she’s trying to do an imitation. And she nails the artist’s glowing smile, which is Maudie’s defining feature as far as I’m concerned. It’s Oscar-caliber work, though unfortunately the film will be too small to give her much traction. But I’m sure, several years later, we will all look at Hawkins’ career and marvel that such talent was not given its proper due—much like how Maud Lewis’ own career is being re-evaluated even today.