Sometimes a film tells a story like an artist paints a picture. Sometimes like a playwright writes a play, or an author pens a novel, or a poet composes verses. Director Aisling Walsh (Song for a Raggy Boy), screenwriter Sherry White and an amazing tech crew have taken those aforementioned sensibilities and created a perfectly nuanced portrait of a unique couple .
The real life Maud Lewis was born on the Yarmouth and Acadian Shore of Nova Scotia in 1903, with virtually no chin. She grew up into a diminutive child who was crippled over with arthritis and had a limp. Her mother encouraged her to paint, so she did. Upon her parents’ death, Maud’s brother Charles inherited their family home and she went to live with an Aunt Ida. As an adult, she lived a secluded existence, buoyed by her painting. The film starts at this point in her life:
Maudie (Sally Hawkins, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations) is taken aback the day her brother shows up to tell her he has sold their house. Between that bad news and her scornful and domineering aunt, Maudie can’t catch a break. Then one day at the general store, a fella named Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke, Boyhood, Born to Be Blue), a fish peddler and handyman, puts a sign on a community board that reads, “Looking for housemaid. Must have own tools.” Maudie, who watched him as he did it, rips the note down before anyone can see it and shows up at his door, prepared to work as a housekeeper.
That’s the set up. A needy thirtysomething woman who’s led a sheltered life trying to get a job and a new living situation all in one swoop. It would be different if the man she meets at the door of his 10’ X 12’ cottage on the edge of town welcomed her. He does not. Everette is dumb as a loaf of bread, burly, gruff, mean and condescending. Poor Maudie doesn’t know what she is getting herself into. But she is persistent. Reluctantly, Everette lets her move in. He doesn’t hesitate to reinforce her lowly position in his house, “There’s me, the dogs, the chickens—and then you.”
Walsh and cinematographer Guy Godfree take great pains to make each exterior scene look like a vivid Andrew Wyeth painting or picture-perfect post card of Nova Scotia. Interior shots of the petite cottage are as evocative, with very simple and sparse set decoration (John Hand, production designer) that drags you into the couple’s very insular world. These are visions you won’t forget.
Walsh is great at staging and meticulously placing her actors around the cottage, in a store or on a country road. She waits a beat, lets them start their lines and cuts scenes (editor Stephen O’Connell) at the perfect moment: when a cruel word has been said, a revelation has been made, or an emotion has run its course.
Maudie’s personal experiences are traumatic. The dynamics between her and her boss verge on emotional, psychological and physical abuse. The outer world that once belittled her embraces her art. The changes she and the characters endure are so dramatic you feel like you are watching a Tony Award-winning Broadway Play.
White’s thoughtfully written script sets up the characters, gives them memorable dialogue and lets the proceedings unfold in layers, over time. Maudie is treated badly by her aunt and brother. She gets involved with a man who’s an oaf. Her painting gives her inner strength. As her life progresses, the awful man who lies next to her in bed and utters the cruelest things (“I would rather stick it (penis) into a tree.), slowly melts into a romance that few could imagine. Thanks to a patron (Kari Matchett), she becomes a well-known folk artist throughout Canada. These life-changing elements make the film feel like a richly textured novel.
Sally Hawkins has been wonderful in so many British movies. And though she has played many great characters, her interpretation of this humble artist is possibly her best performance ever. She physically looks the part. She walks like arthritis is increasingly imprisoning her body. She shows sadness, anger and subtle joy adeptly. Hawkins is always true to the character.
Ethan Hawke played a rookie in Training Day, a dope-addicted jazz trumpeter in Born to Be Blue and a rogue cop in Brooklyn’s Finest. With each portrayal he shows a versatility that is almost unmatched. Everett is a genius performance that further evidences his increasingly burgeoning talent.
There are conversations in this film that are extremely touching because the words the characters say are so ripe with thoughts and feelings: Ida to Maude after years of treating her like dirt, “You are the only one in our family who ended up happy.” Everett to Maude when he finally admits how much she means to him, “I see you as my wife. I always have.” Maude to Everette as age, emphysema and time take a toll on her, “I was loved.” The writing is poetic.
Looking at Maud Lewis’ cheery, primal folk art paintings with birds, flowers and cats, you would never guess that the person who created them led such a difficult life. That’s the uncanny miracle of the real Maud and this exquisitely crafted film.
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com and BlackPressUSA.com.