Maudie is a biopic of the folk artist Maud Lewis (1903–70) who is, apparently, beloved in Canada, and while Sally Hawkins is superb in the title role, and she will win you over (eventually), you do have to buy it as ‘a beautiful love story’. I bought it, hook, line and sinker — such a beautiful love story! — but then I read up on Maud (damn the internet) and had to significantly unbuy it. Does it matter that it may not be ‘the truth’? Or that a woman who was, in fact, severely disabled is presented mostly as someone with a slight hobble? I don’t know, frankly. But I am certainly putting it out there.
Set in and around Digby, the small Nova Scotia community where the artist lived all her life, it opens with Maud in her early thirties, when she’s homeless, in effect. Her parents have died, her brother has sold the family home, and now she’s being foisted on Aunt Ida. Maud was born with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis which, in reality, meant she was tiny — she was ultimately buried in a child’s coffin — while her shoulders were hunched, her chin was pressed into her chest, and her fingers were deformed. She looked like a little gnome, said those who knew her. But this is no My Left Foot, so here the disability has been reduced to that slight hobble, which isn’t even noticeable initially. It does make you wonder: what else has been softened and prettified here?
Maud moves in with Aunt Ida, who is hateful. Maud longs to escape and, in the local store, encounters gruff, taciturn Everett Lewis (a grunting Ethan Hawke). He’s a fish peddler placing an ad for a housemaid. She begs to be hired, and he reluctantly obliges. It’s no picnic. He lives in a cramped shack with no electricity or running water and he makes her position in the household clear. First him, he says, then the dogs, then the chickens, then her. On one occasion, he brutally hits her across the face. So there is that. But they adjust. Affection grows. They have sex. (If, here, she had been shown as being as disabled as she actually was, how would the filmmakers have dealt with this? Or did they soften and prettify so that they didn’t have to?) They marry. As directed by Aisling Walsh, with a screenplay by Sherry White, this becomes the story of two unloved, unwanted people who find each other, which is lovely. It fulfils all our narrative expectations and you’ll almost certainly exit the cinema happy, so long as you can leave it there.
To be clear: there are some wonderful moments. The windswept, isolated geography is wonderful, as is the sparkling cinematography. And while Hawke’s grunting is one-note and tiresome, Hawkins is fabulous. At the outset, her performance is, possibly, too judderingly Mike Leigh-ish but the false notes disappear as she disappears into Maud, who is slyly humorous, quietly feisty, and thrilled at the smallest thing. (She doesn’t expect much from life, we are given to understand.) And watching her at work as an artist is a joy. She discovers a tin of house paint, and begins by daubing simple, bright birds and tulips on the walls. She does not struggle. It pours out of her. She paints the breadbox, the stove, the windows, then old bits of wood. Her pictures of cats, oxen, fishing boats are cheerful and childlike and word spreads until they are earning more than Everett’s fish. He becomes the supportive husband. He peels potatoes, so she can paint! A beautiful love story! Or so I thought.
There are certain things I’ve read that seem to be facts. For example, Everett never gave Maud any of her income, and kept her in extreme poverty until her dying day. After her death, he then faked paintings in her name and sold off everything that was hers, including an iron for $1. He also kept her to a strict painting schedule despite the pain, which became worse as she aged, as her hands became more gnarled. (You do see her struggle with the pain, at the end; the film doesn’t soften and prettify this, at least.) I suppose that, at some level, I just want to know what I’m watching. Is this Maud’s story? Or is it the story we wished to see, as well as the one that was easiest to tell? Does it matter, if the film itself is satisfying, and Hawkins is fabulous? I don’t know. Just putting it out there.