For Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins), life wasn’t kind. Her body was twisted by an illness from childhood, and her fingers were arthritic. She’s left to live with her cruel Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) by her brother (Zachary Bennett), and the situation is so cold that Maud jumps at the chance to take a job as the live-in housekeeper for Everett (Ethan Hawke), a fisherman who lives in a tiny, one-room house. Everett is gruff and cruel, and it’s hardly an improvement for Maud. But Maud’s paintings begin to catch the attention of others, and she eventually begins selling them from the house. Everett and Maud marry, at Maud’s urging, but the slow thawing of their relationship frequently freezes back up. Later in life, Everett grows crueler as Maud’s popularity skyrockets, and she moves out. The two reconcile, though, and live out the rest of her life together.
Maudie is a frustrating watch, because there are compelling performances from Hawkins and Hawke that dominate the film, but the focus of the film feels forced. On her own, Maud is an intriguing presence, and even though her art isn’t overly complicated, watching her create it shows an undeniable joy. You want to watch her. Everett, though, is abhorrent, and the film wants to redeem him in a way that seems way too generous. That’s not a knock on Hawke’s performance, which is strong. But this is a man who is physically and verbally abusive, and he never really earns the redemption the film wants to give him. Reading into Maud’s life, it does seem that the film is taking some creative liberties. Biographers suggest darker aspects to Everett’s domineering ways, and the changes here appear to be pushing the story towards convention.
That being said, what makes Maudie watchable is Hawkins’ portrayal. There’s a simplicity to Maud that Hawkins conveys, without making Maud herself simple. Hawkins is a tremendous actress, and one of the most underrated of our generation. Giving her a film where her presence is felt from beginning to end shows just how talented she is, and makes one wish this film had given more weight to Maud herself as opposed to Maud’s relationship with Everett.