Maudie – movie review

by Peter Calder / 02 November, 2017
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Sally Hawkins lifts the story of a painter who overcomes the odds above sentimentality.

Born Maud Dowley in 1903 in the remote, peninsular Canadian province of Nova Scotia, Maud Lewis achieved minor fame for her naive paintings of everyday rural scenes: her prodigious output belied her affliction with rheumatoid arthritis, which made it hard for her to hold a brush.

She was abandoned by her brother after their parents’ death, and took a job as live-in housekeeper to hard-up fish pedlar Everett Lewis and then became his wife.

This Irish-Canadian co-production plays fast and loose with the facts and comes close to infantilising her, not least in its title – no one calls her Maudie in the film and Maud is a good title for a movie. It never quite shakes the sense that it is patronising a woman who, in her own on-screen words, was “born wrong”.

But Sally Hawkins’s dazzling performance will surely earn Oscar attention. If it’s not quite as good as Daniel Day-Lewis’s in My Left Foot, it’s in the ballpark, as she goes beyond the physical (right heel raised, toe turned in; chin on chest; claw-like hand) to burrow hard into the soul of the character: as she absorbs the truth of a climactic revelation, she is almost torn apart by grief, and we are too, and her twinkle-eyed one-liners go over the heads of their targets and come straight to us.

Beside her, Ethan Hawke’s Everett is grievously underwritten – much of the time he’s reduced to the curmudgeonly grunting of a man old before his time and his motivations remain obscure at best. Oddly, for a film written and directed by women, the fact that her considerable income from painting is passed direct to him is often noted, but never explored: when Everett’s best friend asks him why he hasn’t improved his shack home, we wonder, too.

In all, the airbrushing of some of the less picturesque reality (conspicuously about Maud’s young motherhood) makes the film too sentimental to be great, but the sumptuous camerawork of Guy Godfree and Hawkins’s remarkable turn lift it well above the run-of-the-mill.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★

This article was first published in the October 28, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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