Maudie is an artist’s biography dealing with an artist of the humblest kind. Folk artist Maude Lewis came to be regarded as a local treasure in her native Nova Scotia, and her work gained some attention internationally, but respect for her work came mainly after her death. Her life was one of poverty and personal tragedy, and she found art a consolation as well as a means of expression, almost the only one available to her. This film biography manages to capture Lewis’ artistic passion, which could easily have been concealed beneath the untrained quality of her art, her poverty, and her complete ignorance of the commercial side of art.
Maude Lewis (Sally Hawkins), née Dowley, began her life at a disadvantage. Born with what she blandly called ‘defects,’ skeletal abnormalities which affected her ability to walk, she also came to suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, which gradually incapacitated her over many years. After her father’s death, she was disinherited in favour of her older brother, and found herself penniless and dependent on her disdainful relations for a roof over her head. Her intense passion for painting was regarded by all as a useless hobby, which at this point in her life she kept largely to herself.
The film treats this family background as preamble, and moves quickly on to the events which led to her becoming a professional artist. Young Maude Dowley decides to break with her family rather than be an unwanted dependent, and takes on a job as housekeeper in exchange for little more than room and board. Her employer Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) is a surly, uncommunicative man who lives alone in a small cabin. It is hinted that Lewis may have advertised for a housekeeper as an indirect way for the isolated and socially awkward man to find a wife, and in fact they marry after Maude has worked for him only a few weeks. Despite her new husband’s initial disapproval, Maude continues to paint her simple landscapes and nature studies, using discarded boards and used cardboard as her canvas. When these run out, she resorts to painting on the interior walls and windows of the cabin – a cabin which has been preserved, painting intact, and placed inside the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in the city of Halifax.
The marriage of Maude and Everett Lewis is portrayed in a fairly noncommittal way, acknowledging Everett Lewis’ unsupportive and sometimes cruel and abusive treatment of his wife early in their marriage without minimising it, while at the same time managing to convey the genuine affection between them, especially as the years passed. Russell Crowe captures Everett as an imperfect man struggling against his own ingrained repression and resentment, rather than as a simple brute. The couple’s home life was one of hardship on many levels, and Maude experienced more than a few personal tragedies in the course of her life; but Maudie uses this fact to accentuate the importance of art in Maude’s life, and the significance of her work’s consistent expression of optimism and joy, in the face of a life of scarcity, disappointment, and physical suffering.
When an art-savvy tourist from New York takes an interest in Maude’s paintings, and offers a few dollars for one, the Lewises recognise a potential source of income. They erect a small, hand-lettered sign outside the cabin, ‘Paintings For Sale,’ and offer Maude’s colourful folk paintings for five dollars apiece. Maude is surprised and pleased to find that tourists will actually pay money for something she thought was of value only to herself; and her husband, who had been indifferent to her artwork, comes to respect it, if only for its value to the household.
Sally Hawkins does marvellous work playing both the spirited younger Maude and the aging Maude Lewis, as her illness progresses and she slowly succumbs to pain and severely reduced mobility, yet never loses her determination and her delight in everyday life. She struggles to continue painting after her hands become all but useless, unwilling to give up the artwork that is the centre of her life. Even when, in her later years, she gains some renown, is interviewed on television and has a painting requested by the US president, Maude saw these events as odd bits of luck. She loved her art, but did not see herself as a successful or famous artist; it did not even occur to her to raise the price of her paintings – with a single amusing exception, when she charged her callous and disloyal brother an extra dollar for one.
The two lead actors, and the careful direction by Aisling Walsh (who previously directed Sally Hawkins in Fingersmith), are what make this film work. Walsh presents the odd, courageous figure to the general public in a way that allows us to share the affection her fellow Nova Scotians hold for her, and for her simple but heartfelt paintings. It takes Maude Lewis beyond the category of local curiosity, by recognising the soul of an artist in an unlikely package. It is this recognition, along with Hawkins’ ability to channel the unique personality of Maude Lewis, that gives this movie its distinctive charm.