December 11, 2017

MAUDIE (2016, dir. Aisling Walsh) – Review

I’m not sure I’d want to live in a world in which a film such as Maudie cannot exist. Whether or not one enjoys an occasional fix of franchised, zillion-dollar-budget, digital, animated, and/or head-banging action movies is a matter of personal taste—but if the tightly focused, fine-etched, moving human portrait a Maudie offers ever ceases to have creators and audiences then the state of our culture is dire indeed. Superbly directed by Aisling Walsh with a spare but beguiling screenplay by Sherry White and vividly lived-in performances by Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke, this film braces the heart and clears the head. It cuts through the barrage of distractions to which our 21st-Century lives are heir, avoids all notions of “high concept” like the plague, eschews ham-handed narrative and emotional manipulation, and in one hour and fifty-five minutes accrues a powerful simplicity and clarity. We are brought face to face with essential questions of human existence and of our shared quest to make life, love, and—when there’s room left over or need enough—art. When the film ends one is likely to feel somehow enlarged, a little less desensitized and cluttered, more attentive to how one is living, to possibility. If that’s what a good “small film” can do, I respectfully suggest we embrace it and be grateful.

Later in her life Maud Lewis (1903-1970) became a well-known Canadian folk artist, having lived most of her life in a two-room house near a small rural town in Nova Scotia—and her work has taken on more renown and much greater market value since her death. She walked with a progressively bent spine and misaligned feet, the result of juvenile-onset rheumatoid arthritis. Her only true love (and necessity) was painting, brushes grasped with already somewhat gnarled fingers. Her passionate eye travels—”The whole of life, always changing, right there, already framed.” Both of her parents die before she turns thirty, and the film begins with her brother selling the family homestead and consigning Maud to a chilly aunt. In a desperate stab at self-determination Maud (Hawkins) answers a notice for a housekeeper tacked-up in the local store by Everett Lewis (Hawke) a curmudgeonly loner who lives outside the town. Everett ekes out a living as a fish peddler and sometime junk dealer. His harsh childhood (he makes one oblique reference to “them stacking us six in a bed at the orphanage”) has rendered him defensively insensate: even the most basic social interactions and communication for him are foreign currency exchanged in fraught territory. When Maud signs on he makes it clear to her that his two dogs “have been here longer than you—there’s the dogs, then the chickens, then you”. Eventually, they marry. Maudie is not so much a film about Maud Lewis’s art as it is about the life from which it arose.

The film’s greatest strength arises from the manner in which director Walsh and the actors reject the usual bio pic seductions of unleavened abject misery, triumph over adversity, or rosy romanticizing. Sensitive and intimate, it casts a level gaze, never presuming to reduce the motivation for Maud’s art to a simple emotional formula. We follow her as, from meager options, she chooses her path and makes her way—slowly, but with courage, humor, and generosity. Clearly, Maud’s vibrant depictions of birds and animals, flowers and trees, sea- and landscapes speak of a delight we do not readily see in her hardscrabble life, but instead of eureka moments the film relies on quietly observed camera shots. There are no facile judgments about the subject and no vague assumptions about the metaphorical meaning of her work. Maud retains an enigmatic, dignified mystery even as the film focuses in on the more quotidian details—the raw material—of her life. Maudie‘s consistent fascination is that it takes the viewer on a journey in which a highly unlikely pair of human beings becomes ineluctably likely, and a woman becomes an artist whose life is as insistently her creative work as is the material work she will leave behind.

With the ever more declining angle of her head, crabbed movements, sometimes quirky vocal patterns, and persistent sly smile, Sally Hawkins’s technical performance has an uncompromising authority but, even more important, as the film unfolds we forget the actor and see only Maud. Hawke is similarly uningratiating, and it’s some of the actor’s best work to date. He gives Everett’s stunted emotions and speech their own eloquence and, as the two grow into their unique coupledom, Hawke’s performance (which is delicately deferential to Hawkins’s throughout) takes on a muted grace and power.

As essential aspect of Maudie’s texture of authenticity is its palpable sense of place. Guy Godfrey’s cinematography alternately engages us in the Lewises’ circumscribed domestic world and the sharp seasons and maritime expanses of Nova Scotia—the Lewises’ little house is their castle, and just beyond a one-step wooden threshold, all around them, is the great and terrible beauty of the world.

Life deals Maud Lewis a very difficult hand, but she plays it with shrewdness, strength, resilience and humor. What Walsh, her creative team, and Hawkins and Hawke have made with what raw material is known of Maud’s life is, after all, a love story. Its starkness reminds us that love has many capacities and takes many forms, and that there is nothing shameful in admitting that much of love is based in need. We may each have individual, distinct needs, but we all also have more universal needs and one of the most basic is that, however transcendent love may become, we all need to be needed. When near the end of the film Maud, in a hoarse whisper, assures her emotionally-awakened but still taciturn spouse, “I have been loved”, it is not the statement of a selfish satisfaction—it’s a carefully considered and painstakingly created gift.

– Hadley Hury

(Maudie, a Canadian-Irish production, premiered last September at the Telluride and the Toronto Film Festivals and has opened wide in the U.S. and Europe over the summer.)

 

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