You’ve likely never seen a story before like the one told in director Aisling (The Daisy Chain) Walsh’s Maudie, even though this particular one springs forth from real life, which is consistently more interesting than predictable old fiction. The film concerns Maud Lewis (played by the always flawless Sally Hawkins from Happy-Go-Lucky and Blue Jasmine), a Nova Scotian woman who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis from a young age, causing her to live a life hunched over with arms and hands misshapen and in a great deal of pain. But Maud was not one to complain even while she was being treated horribly by her elderly Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) and conniving brother Charlie (Zachary Bennett), who finds a way to cut her out of her share of the family inheritance. She grows tired of being treated like an animals, so she leaves the house and decides to seek work, with no actual prospects or skills to speak of.
Maudie isn’t about a woman with a disability; it’s about a woman in her early 30s seeking independence for the first time in her life. In fact, when you see photos of the real Maud at the end of the film, you realize just how much her physical limitations could have easily stopped her from even leaving the familiarity of home. But eventually she finds a posting at the local store for a housekeeper for the local fish monger, Everett (Ethan Hawke with a voice so gravely, it sounds like he’s been gargling wet sand), who is so socially inept that he makes the shy Maud seem downright chatty. The scene where they meet (you couldn’t really call it a job interview) is so wonderfully awkward that they move around each other as if they might self-destruct if they good too close. It’s not exactly a meet-cute, but few things about this eventual romance are traditional.
Everett hires Maud conditionally, but she has no idea what to do and not do in terms of cleaning or cooking, and just when he’s on the verge of firing her, she makes the first of many stands for her being given a real chance to prove herself. One thing that Maud does have a talent for is painting, despite having to hold her brushes unconventionally with her twisted fingers. At first she simply draws little pictures around the windows, then on the walls, then on pretty much any flat surface in Everett’s house, which he doesn’t seem to mind, despite his one-room cabin having nothing artistic in it at all. The painting resemble that of a child but with genuine composition and an eye for capturing the essence of the simply things that Maud see out the window.
While she’s developing her style, the pair begin to fall in love. They share a bed from the day she starts working for him, but one day he simply tries to hop on top of her, which she seems okay with but still makes the request that before he tries anything like that, they ought to be married. And so they get married, simple as that. The unassuming nature of both performances is the key to Maudie working so well. I’ve seen both of these fine actors in many roles over the years, but I’ve never seen them try anything like this before. As quiet and mumbly as Maud can be, Hawkins makes certain her declarations are clear, while Hawke imbues Everett with an animalistic quality that shouldn’t be as appealing as it ends up feeling by the time we’re deep into their relationship.
Kari Matchett plays Sandra, a customer who gets fish delivered from Everett. She’s not a local but she owns a vacation home in the area, and when she comes to complain about a missed delivery, she sees Maud’s paintings and wants to by several of them, bringing money into the household quicker than it ever has before. Sandra’s promoting of Maud’s work in the area suddenly turns their little shack into a tourist destination and center of a great deal of press coverage, as a sort of local oddity. And although they never move out, they start making a great deal of money with Maud churning out paintings while Everett keeps track of the funds. It become a real and fulfilling partnership, and although he doesn’t pretend to be any kind of art expert, he also doesn’t mind that Maud becomes the primary bread winner.
I loved the scenes between Maud and Sandra. At one point, Maud moves out after a big argument and stays with Sandra, seeing her patron’s home for the first time and getting an eyeful of how the other half lives. They couldn’t be two more different people, but they have a connection rooting in what is beautiful in the world and valuing Maud contribution to that beauty. Both Maud’s abusive aunt and devious brother come back after she’s become a success, but even those moments don’t play out quite how you’d think, as Maud has gained a confidence to deal with opportunists that is defiant and impressive.
Walsh takes full advantage of Nova Scotia’s combination of isolated living and picturesque landscapes, and the result is a film that feels so far removed from the real world that you almost resent it when cars pass by their home. Maudie is a remarkable and utterly unique film that I still can’t believe someone actually made, but much like Maud’s paintings, someone (in this case, writer Sherry White) saw a quality in her story that they recognized as worthy of attention, admiration, and beauty.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.