MAUDIE (Movie Review)

***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for some thematic content, language, and brief sexuality)
Released:  June 16, 2017 limited; expands throughout July 2017
Runtime: 115 minutes
Director: Aisling Walsh
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Ethan Hawke, Kari Matchett, Gabrielle Rose, Zachary Bennett

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There’s something about Sally Hawkins that makes me want to give her a hug after every performance she gives.

It’s hard to articulate, or as simple as the absolute purity of her heart, I guess. Whatever her endearing intangible is, Hawkins exudes it like never before in Maudie, the portrait of real-life arthritic Canadian painter Maud Dowley Lewis whose work transcended both poverty and pain. It’s the kind of emotionally rich, stirring journey of struggle and dignity that makes you want to become a passionate evangelist for this small, artful gem of a film, and its sweet, deeply sincere charms and pathos.

The film opens on Maud painting. For her, it’s a slow, strained process, each stroke an act of will and soft exasperation. Art is her salvation, but her body is a cross. Before a word is even spoken she becomes a compelling, inspirational figure, as her sheer resolve to create earns both our empathy and respect.

Mentally slow as well, Maud has been under the controlling and callous guardianship of her brother and aunt in a small 1930s coastal Nova Scotia town. She’s badgered and belittled. Neither relative has the patience or bandwidth for Maud’s needs and restrictions.

Rejected, Maud responds to a local man’s job listing for a live-in housemaid, taking a step of faith (and courage) that changes the course of both of their lives, sparking an unlikely romance between these two opposites. It’s forged by tension but also moments of grace.

The man is Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), a local fisherman who lives in a tiny and quaint square home (one that has gone on to become as famous as Maud’s enduring folk art). Like Maud, he seems to be slightly on the spectrum, and their first conversation is adorably tense in its awkwardness. His lack of emotional acuity, however, is further hardened by the harsh patriarchal standards of the time, which he sternly enforces.

To cope with Everett’s volatile mood swings, Maud begins to paint.

Everett’s too obtuse to consider intimacy, and Maud’s too disparaged to hope it could ever be extended to her. Furthermore, his sense of manliness is threatened by her presence, embarrassing him. He doesn’t want to appear soft (especially around his peers). He’s hard-hearted, but buried beneath is a caring soul that also yearns to be cared for.

As Maud privately asserts her own agency through her art, the walls between the two gently begin to crumble, awakening something beautiful in each of them, but not without challenges, setbacks, and heartache, particularly as Maud’s art gains a fame and notoriety that Everett never bargained for, or wanted. And when a shocking revelation from her past makes a devastating impact, it shifts the dynamics of their relationship, and what will come of it.

Hawkins imbues Maud with an unassuming humility, one that is genuine and innate, but it’s an empowering defense against people’s cruelties, not a result of them. Her meekness is actually her strength. Maud’s lower IQ makes her childlike, too, with a simple-mindedness that stands as an admirable contrast to the cynical “realism” of others. It makes Maud an aspirational figure, not one to just pity.

In less skilled, more actorly self-conscious hands, Maud would come off as mawkishly cloying, possibly obnoxious, but Hawkins is too authentic for that. She works at a Method level, never straining for theatrics even in the most dramatic moments, and your heart wholly goes out to her. Oscars have been won for far less impressive turns than this.

Hawke, by contrast, is a bit more mannered on the surface, but he understands Everett to the core, his psychology, how he’s wired and the instincts that rise from that, revealing depths of both anger and softness with credible range. Both lead performances are truly transformative.

Irish director Aisling Walsh, a veteran of Brit-based television dramas working from a screenplay by Sherry White, is not only perceptive with characterization and tone but is equally deft in her aesthetic vision. Along with cinematographer Guy Godfree, Walsh crafts every shot like a painting of “turn of the century” realism, whether in a breathtaking landscape, a stark portrait, or beautiful still life (Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” feels like an influence).

To watch this without sound would be akin to walking through a museum’s gallery exhibit of an artist’s work, each frame thoughtfully considered, art directed with an earthy yet bold naturalism in colorfully muted pastels and shades. Among its many virtues, Maudie is also one of the best looking films you’ll see this year, making this small indie a very worthwhile big screen experience to seek out.

The meaner characters are a bit stock and one-note, and some of the dialogue forces sentiment a bit too directly, but these are small, inconsequential quibbles. The whole of the experience is profoundly moving, particularly as Maud’s self-determination increases at the same rate of her degenerative physical deformation, which begins to consume her. That spirit, given life through artistic expression, defies the betrayal of the body and serves as a healing, restorative catharsis.

Maudie is a tender triumph.

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