*** ½ (out of 4)
On the surface, Aisling Walsh’s Maudie would appear to be the umpteenth biopic about a person – in this case, the beloved Canadian folk painter Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins) – who overcomes adversity. And unlike in movies like The Theory of Everything, there’s more than one obstacle standing in the protagonist’s way. First, Maud suffers from a crippling form of arthritis that makes every walk to the local grocery store a drawn-out ordeal. Second, like most women who came of age before the advent of second-wave feminism, she’s held back by her gender, as evidenced by the condescending treatment she receives from both her older brother (Zachary Bennett) and the employer who eventually becomes her lifelong husband (Ethan Hawke). And finally, Maud in general proves to be shy and lonely, the kind of person who talks in bursts of half-formed phrases and who always finds herself lingering at the back of her local nightclub.
With all these barriers looming over Maud’s life, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’re in for two hours of I’m-a-human-being-too melodrama. Thankfully, however, Walsh wisely chooses not to devote much energy to the stereotypically inspirational aspects of Maud’s life. Instead, she usually treats us to unabashedly mundane depictions of Maud doing chores or walking outside – and whenever the plot absolutely has to pass through a moment of heightened emotional tension, it refuses to dwell on it long enough to let it transmogrify into angst. Meanwhile, Walsh also endeavors to make the movie’s very structure as consciously low-key as the story it tells: her mix of long takes and landscapes leaves you in a state of calm comparable to Maud’s, as though no setback could possibly be significant enough to warrant a disruption to life’s natural flow. When Maud eventually does succeed in putting the naysayers in her life to shame, Walsh’s stylistic and narrative restraint ensures that this triumph never feels artificial; rather, it feels like the natural outgrowth of a life that never seems to lose its sense of resilience.
In general, Maudie’s eschewal of drama in the usual sense is greatly refreshing; it gives you uplift without ever becoming heavy-handed, and it allows you to appreciate just how ordinary the real Maud Lewis must have been. That said, such moderation isn’t without its occasional drawbacks. For all the subtle joy that Walsh’s deliberately laid-back approach brings, it also ensures that the movie never digs into important aspects of Maud’s character. Why, for example, does Maud enjoy painting? Walsh frequently hints at possible answers: Maud notes at one point that she loves windows because “the whole of life” is “framed” in them, and we first see her dabbling with paint right after her boss slaps her across the face, as though she views art as a kind of escape. Yet no matter what Walsh does to try and help you understand Maud, part of you always remains conscious of the fact that you’re an outside observer to Maud’s world, as though there’s something more to her that she just doesn’t feel comfortable revealing. In such instances, Walsh’s reserve leaves you involuntarily aloof.
Still, Maudie is generally so earnest in its humanizing that a little simplicity in character development can’t spoil your overall appreciation of what Walsh has created. For every moment in which you’re left frustrated by Walsh’s intentional detachment, there’s a gentle but breathtaking shot like the one she uses on Maud’s deathbed that reminds you of the value of such a mindset. More importantly, however, Hawkins and Hawke both do compelling work portraying a couple whose love arises out of some instinctive, ineffable need for companionship. In particular, Hawke manages to bring a touch of humanity to a man who could otherwise easily be dismissed as the epitome of crude masculinity – and it’s a mark of Hawkins’ skill that you always find yourself rooting for her when she barely says more than perhaps a couple hundred words throughout the entire movie. Maud Lewis may not have been a trailblazing feminist or an epoch-defining artistic genius. But after watching Hawkins, Hawke and Walsh have a go at telling her life story, you’ll find that she’s still one of the most remarkable individuals you’ll meet on the silver screen this year.
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Ethan Hawke
Running Time: 116 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13, “for some thematic content and brief sexuality.”
Produced by: Bob Cooper, Mary Young Leckle, Mary Sexton, Susan Mullen
Written by: Sherry White
Directed by: Aisling Walsh