At first glance the film Maudie (2016) appears to be little more than a story about famous Canadian painter Maudie Lewis, an arthritic woman who painted childlike images in early 1900s Nova Scotia. But this description is far too simple. The slow visual and emotional delights of this film are the kind that catch you unawares while you are waiting for the narrative to gather pace and reveal a bigger story.
It is no spoiler to say that there is no bigger story: it’s all about small detail. The opening scenes show a crippled hand barely able to hold a paintbrush, slowly etching the outline of a flower then filling it with vibrant colour. Some may call it childlike, but Maudie (Sally Hawkins) paints the world that she wants to see, not the one where children throw stones at her because she is different. An orphan mistreated by her aunt and brother, she is determined to break out, find a job…just be normal. She responds to a housekeeper advert and meets surly fishmonger Everett (Ethan Hawke) who is too inarticulate to send her away. He lets her stay in his one-room timber shack but makes it clear that he regards her as lower than a farmyard chicken. He is brutish and coarse, while she is determined to see good in him. Despite her mistreatment, they form an unlikely bond and Everett allows her to paint flowers and wildlife on his drab walls. Her talent is noticed by a well-heeled New Yorker who surprises them by buying some paintings. Maudie paints more, interest grows, Everett does housework to allow Maudie to paint, and over time she becomes an internationally famous artist.
This simple tale is strewn with beautiful small moments. There is a simple purity in seeing a hunched figure with withered hands slowly creating a bright pretty world with gentle brushstrokes, then smiling at what she sees. Maudie has a natural gift for finding warmth and happiness in alien places. A particularly touching moment is when Maudie learns the real fate of the baby she had lost at childbirth many years before. Despite the apparent differences between the optimist Maudie and the belligerent Everett, the two of them slowly evolve an emotional inter-dependency. Sally Hawkins fills her role with extraordinary expressiveness: with just a raised eyebrow or a wry turn of her lip she emotes with brush-like precision on the audience’s emotional canvas. Ethan Hawke is excellent in playing an emotionally stunted man of few words who communicates through body language and grunted vocal tones. With minimal dialogue, so much that is not said is felt so clearly.
The film’s fine grain is not its only strength. The cinematography of Nova Scotia village life seamlessly shifts from the landscape’s natural beauty to close-ups of Maudie in pain but smiling elfishly as she finds good in all. Some may find it slow-moving, but the storytelling’s gentle pace is perfect in this portrait of a gentle artist.
Director: Aisling Walsh
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Ethan Hawke
An Ireland/Canada production