Life’s capacity to be both a dispenser of both cruel fate and of loving restorative possibility is on full, luminous display in Aisling Walsh’s Maudie, an emotionally-resonant biopic of celebrated Canadian artist Maud Lewis.
A woman with more cause than many to rue the day she was born, Maud (played with nuanced vivacity by Sally Hawkins) chose instead to approach life with an inspiring level of tenacity and a willingness to surmount the many obstacles placed in her way, not once but sometimes many times over.
“Born funny”, as she termed it, and sadly used to be being belittled by everyone from her self-centred brother Charles (Zachary Bennett) and her prickly Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose), with whom she lived in Digby, Nova Scotia after her brother sold the family home, Maud refused to let a little, or in her case, a lot of misfortune derail her.
It’s almost immediately obvious through Sherry White’s quiet, measured script that gives ample time for events to unfold and characters to react in thoughtful fashion, that Maud, ridden from birth with juvenile arthritis is not a simple pushover or a victim caving in to the vicissitudes of her life.
Time and again, people mistake her for a simpering simpleton who, it is wrongly assumed, has been worn down to such an extent that she will accept whatever self-serving crumbs are thrown to her from the table; and time and again Maud surprises everyone by batting away false assumptions and rising with aplomb to defy expectations.
What’s remarkable about Maudie, which has justifiably earned Hawkins considerable praise, is that it doesn’t sugarcoat or airbrush the artist’s life so her plucky attitude become a piece of anodyne, hokey inspirationalism, the kind that Hollywood eats for breakfast before asking for more.
Yes, she rose to meet whatever life threw at her, but to be fair, she didn’t have much choice; she either had to stand up for herself and seize the rare opportunities that came her way or cave in and in all honesty, most likely die.
The alternatives were not particularly attractive and were brutally real, and Maud knew it, which is how she cameto marry crusty, fishseller Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) , with weeks of taking up a position as his housekeeper in his small, sparse cabin in the wilds outside Marshalltown, Nova Scotia.
An orphan with a massive chip on his shoulder – but a good heart as demonstrated by his work at the orphanage he once called home and his much-delayed embrace of Maud as his wife through small but symbolic gestures – and a fierce territorality about his possessions, home and his status as the breadwinner, all born no doubt of a great deal of early rejection and pain, Everett was not an easy man to live with.
Prone to angry outbursts and occasional physical violence – in one shocking scene he slaps Maud across the face in front of his fisherman friend Mr Hill (Greg Malone) for the simple “sin” of talking contentedly about their life together – Everett was a man with emotional walls so high it appeared that no one could ever breach them.
But then no one had ever met someone as fiercely determined as Maud.
From the moment that she takes down his ad for a housekeeper from the town’s general store and appears at his door after walking miles out of town in great pain, Maud takes on any and all comers.
Where Maudie excels, and bring a deeply-affecting emotional resonance to the story, is by refusing to treat Maud like a 1930s Pollyanna, glibly facing challenges and overcoming all.
There is considerable pain in her life, beyond the purely physical, which is considerable – Aunt Ida treats her terribly, even selling her child, with Charles consent, to a couple in town and telling Maud her daughter was deformed and had died, Charles sees her simply as a cash cow, especially once her artistic careers takes off (not that it made her particularly wealthy) and Everett could be astonishingly kind and viciously thoughtless and uncaring.
Maud’s life then was not an easy one and she had good reason to resent every moment of it, but miraculously she didn’t, content with a few possessions, the eventually devoted love of Everett and the opportunity to paint wherever she could, with a view if possible through a window.
Maudie then, delivered with a profound appreciation for the way life can be bless and curse in equal measure, daring us to see which way we will react to it, is an immeasurably beautiful, touching examination of this remarkable woman’s life.
It’s not exhaustive biopic by any means but then you suspect it was never intended to be; the message that comes through, time and again, is how Maud, against all odds and reason, was happy.
Not rich, uber-successful – her artistic success is shown, encouraged by her New Yorker friend Sandra (Kari Matchett) who often stays in town, but also too is her happiness to keep her life as simple as it ever was – or life-dominating, she is, some extremely painful interludes aside, happy.
Even when she temporarily moves out of the small, ramshackle wooden hut she shares with Everett and which she covers, inside and out with her whimsical, colourful folk art, she remains content, impasse resolved, to return to her small scale, art-infused life and leave it at that.
It’s not a case of small ambitions but recognising that in a life that began with so much misery and pain, physical and emotional, that she has done all right.
Her life isn’t perfect and lord knows there is much to be desired in the way Everett too often treats her – he mellows later on while still retaining his caustic edge, the depth of his change of heart on desperately sad display in the final act – but as Aunt Ida admits to her on her near-deathbed, Maud is the only one who’s ever found happiness in their family.
You cannot helped but be deeply and profoundly changed by watching Maudie – not because it hits you over the head with the warm and fuzzies delivered with all the emotional subtlety of a wrestling maneuver (it doesn’t) but because, on the contrary, while it admits that life can be cruelly, viscerally awful, it acknowledges in the most grounded but wonderful of ways that it can also be supremely rewarding and beautiful.
So captivatingly delightful is Maud Lewis, brought alive by Hawkins with a tenacious, sweet, funny (her quips to her many detractors are pricelessly hilarious self-aware bon mots) and vulnerable performance, that you can’t help but fall in love with her, and with the idea that no matter what the adversity, and Maud endured more than her fair share, that happiness awaits anyone willing to look, and fight, for it.