Cast: Sally Hawkins, Ethan Hawke, Kari Matchett, Gabrielle Rose, Zachary Bennett, Billy MacLellan
Director: Aisling Walsh
Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Nova Scotian folk painter Maud Lewis was a real person. She lived, suffered debilitating arthritis, enjoyed painting cards and walls inside her humble home, slaved as a housemaid to an emotionally abusive fishmonger, Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), and eventually died poor and destitute. The true story tagline here; a strong-willed woman fights against her crippling physical aliments, poverty, and loneliness in order to create art reflecting the world as she saw it, may have sounded good on paper, but in execution, Maudie traffics in erroneous signifiers. For one thing, director Aisling Walsh hits all the familiar narrative beats in constructing this idea that Maud, with her hunched posture and crooked smile, was a free-spirited artist, but the film refuses to confront the ugliness inherent at the heart of the story.
Truthfully, Maudie is a depressing examination of misogyny run amok; a case of the crotchety narcissist gradually coming to his senses and learning to care for the lovable disabled artist. As played by Sally Hawkins in a sensitive, fully committed performance, Maud is someone who always seems optimistic regardless of her circumstances. She takes all forms of passive-aggressive abuse as simply something pertaining to her lot in life, which includes being treated with indifference by her brother, Charles (Zachary Bennett) and aunt, Ida (Gabrielle Rose). Longing to move away from her stifling home life, she responds to an advertisement placed by Everett for a housekeeper, which leads her into yet another form of psychological torture. Things start changing when a urbane New Yorker, Sandra (Kari Matchett), takes notice of Maud's simple paintings strewn around the house and urges her to sell her art.
The problem with Maudie is both one of intent and familiarity. The screenplay by Sherry White abandons any hint of nuance that may have existed in the real-life story of how two damaged people find one another, instead rushing through predictable plot beats. There's the awkward initial meeting, the off-kilter romance, the ups and downs of Maud's artistic career, the couple's separation, and then their eventual reunion. For his part, Hawke mostly grunts and growls his way through the proceedings. Gravely miscast, with his boyish face and good-natured posture clashing with his character's gruff demeanor and cranky attitude, Hawke's chemistry with Hawkins is nearly nonexistent. It's like they are acting in two entirely different movies.
All of this, incidentally, is rendered by Walsh as an emotionally simplistic tale. The intention seems to be to paint Maud's suffering (both physically and psychologically) as a kind of "love conquers all" narrative, complete with the misanthropic suitor coming around and learning how to feel something. This kind of backwards thinking in terms of gender was surely present during the time, and as a filmmaker, Walsh has no business sugar coating such facts, but the film makes the fatal flaw of presenting Everett's misogyny as a kind of innocent character defect leading to an apparent change of heart. Instead of wrestling with it's uncomfortable subject matter, Maudie is a film desperate to be liked and admired. Maud's childlike pastorals evoking the Eastern Canadian landscapes are also given short shrift, only glimpsed in small doses instead of being the central focus. Maud's art, which helped her overcome extreme obstacles and rekindled her youthful spirit, should have contextualized her suffering and offered redemption. Instead. it's simply an extension of a dramatically inert story about the arthritic savant falling in love with a man too dim-witted and emotionally stunted to appreciate her.