Unfortunately, this is probably a film that almost no one outside of Atlantic Canada has ever heard of in trailers or other various promotional material. Even for myself, a writer who works out of New Brunswick, Canada I had only heard about this film from seeing a trailer for the movie in front of another small film which almost no one had seen. The film revolves around Canadian painter Maud Lewis, who understandably is not as well-known as some others but the film has some legitimate Hollywood stars and critical acclaim behind it but Lord knows, it’s more important to see the new Transformers trailer eight million times because otherwise, it might only make ten dollars less than projected. Okay, rant over.
As I briefly stated in the paragraph above, Maudie concerns the real-life story of Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins), a diminutive arthritic woman who has an affinity for painting. At this point in her life though, she just wants to move away from her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose), a controlling woman who ‘looks after her.’ When Maud’s brother Charles (Zachary Bennett) ends up selling her childhood home, it’s the last straw and Maud answers an ad to cook and clean for a 40-something illiterate anti-social fish peddler named Everett (Ethan Hawke). The majority of the film is concentrated on the relationship between the two and how two opposing personalities can somehow grow to show affection for one another especially as Maud gains fame for her paintings and Everett feels like he’s on the back-burner.
Here is a film that could simply be highlighted by one performance and that is of course from the great Sally Hawkins. As all of the critics have pointed out, she is an absolute revelation at the core of the film and she perfectly encapsulates everything about Maud Lewis from her stilted way of walking due to her arthritic condition right down to the muted sort of cadence with how she communicates with others. Sally Hawkins is the one who pushes the movie into even greater territory. Besides Hawkins, Ethan Hawke also more than holds his own. Here he takes a role outside his comfort zone as he isn’t suave or even likeable for a large portion of the film (even telling Hawkins’ Maud at one point that she ranks below chickens in terms of her worth) but his mumbly, gravelly delivery and sourpuss attitude is portrayed with such conviction and genuine acting that it’s not hard to root for the two of them to find some common ground. There are other decent performers in the film but Sally and Ethan are the ones that stick out so much more than anyone else.
The first thing that sticks out that makes this film work so well is the decidedly non-Hollywood way in which the eventual romance between Maud and Everett develops from the beginning of the film to the very end. The film really makes the viewer struggle to accept Everett as a potential love interest right from the get-go as Hawke’s portrayal is of a broken and stubborn man. In an early scene, as Maud is proudly talking to one of Everett’s co-workers, he even becomes so annoyed that he strikes her. In a weaker film, it would be hard to get past that moment and still hope for some kind of connection but that’s not the case here. Despite a sudden burst of abusive behaviour, we hope for change. We hope that Everett will mature and perhaps feel remorse for his impulsive act. Everett is not a bad man but rather a flawed one; he is a man who most likely did not have a good childhood either and was probably told by others, much like Maud, that he was weird and different. Everett was brought up with very “traditional” values so much so that he puts up a “Help Wanted” ad and specifies that it must be a woman because he believes that those are the ones that must tend to the housework.
I know I am speaking a lot about character but that’s what the backbone of this film is based on for the most part. The plot moves fairly slowly and except for one oddly-placed but well-edited musical montage, it escapes a lot of the Hollywood traps of building up a lead romance. You never get the sense that the characters change beyond a reasonable amount simply to serve the story but rather that it is very natural. Both of these characters are lost souls and what starts as a simple employee/employer relationship soon blossoms into something else. The film’s cinematography is also quite beautiful. There are many shots with multiple people in the scene but often times we stick with Maud with the rest being out of focus. This allows us to follow her story and feel everything from her point of view. There is one particular scene late in the film where she is given new information that completely shakes her world. The camera remains on her almost the entire time as we watch her go through a range of emotions that is absolutely heartbreaking.
The film is a wondrous achievement and should be watched by as many as possible. Watch it as soon as you can before it leaves the theatre.
Less than * (Actively offensive to one’s intelligence)
* (Brutal; bottom-of-the-barrel)
** (Some elements keep it from being awful but still not very good)
*** (Completely watchable; a rental as old-timers might say)
**** (Great film with a few things here and there keeping it from being perfect)
***** (Flawless; a true achievement)