Review: 'Maudie' Starring Sally Hawkins & Ethan Hawke

Maudie, the story of famed Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis is too quiet and bleak to have much audience appeal, but there should always be a market for another great Sally Hawkins performance. The Oscar nominee shrivels herself up into physical knots, hunched over and sagging as the crippled Lewis, whose body was racked by juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. But still she smiles, a simple, sweet smile, that suggests a wondrous eye and curious spirit, which viewers will need to latch on to endure what can be a meandering film that too often ignores the art that kept her going when giving up would have been easier.

Lewis' paintings would never be considered high art, but she captured a certain childlike imagination in her images of birds, flowers, and rainbows. The innocence she depicted would garner her a certain level of fame unaccustomed to the simple folk of her tiny Nova Scotia village. It also sustained her through a rough childhood racked by physical deformity; an uncaring family that basically disowned her, and an eventual marriage to Everett (Ethan Hawke), an angry, womanizing fishmonger who lived in a single-room 10' x 12' house. He took out an ad for a housewoman to basically cook and feed him, and Maud answered, enduring his daily abuses in a way most women could not. At least in the film it's suggested she stayed out of genuine concern for Everett, but in reality it was probably something much different, like having few other options.

Irish director Aisling Walsh and writer Sherry White clearly want to make Lewis' story a happy one and bring it beyond the Canadian borders, but to do it they shave some of the rougher edges of her life. Early on, Everett, who has no qualms about slapping Maud around, makes it clear where she is on the pecking order. First the dog, then his chickens, and then her. Still, she stayed, and even slept next to him in their tiny bed, which leads to his wanting something more. They form a sort of ragged Odd Couple where he acts like a petulant child and she caters to his every need. When she begins painting he initially doesn't like it, but then she attracts the attention of a classy New Yorker (Kari Matchett), whose interest in them puts her on the artistic map. The money she makes goes a long way in changing Everett's mind, even though her success does eventually threaten his fragile male ego, leading to one of the couple's many rough patches.

There isn't much of an attraction to Lewis' home life, especially with Everett such an utterly loathsome figure. But there is something to admire in how Lewis was able to use her art to make the best of her limited prospects, and to ultimately find happiness. Hawkins captures Lewis' shyness and resiliency beautifully, while embodying her physical limitations in a way that is respectful. She's far and away the best reason to see the film. Nothing against Hawke, but Everett isn't the right character for him. And it doesn't help that Everett's...let's call it a "reclamation", is tonally inconsistent and never fully explained. It reads like a forceful attempt at a "Happily Ever After", when the much easier path would have been to focus more on Lewis' art. Sadly, it's more of a footnote to her eccentric marriage, when we really want to know the influences that inspired her youthful outlook.

While Maudie is a film to be admired, and certainly Hawkins' performance is beautiful and heartbreaking, a richer portrait of Maud Lewis is still waiting to be painted.

Rating: 3 out of 5