Friday, July 28, 2017

Maudie: A Window on the World

Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins in Maudie

The unassuming bio Maudie by the Irish director Aisling Walsh is a small-scale beauty about the Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins) and her relationship with her husband Everett (Ethan Hawke). Maud, crippled by juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, goes to live with her grim, puritanical Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose, in a finely sketched performance) in Digby after her brother Charles (Zachary Bennett) sells the house they grew up in. (In the Depression-era Canadian Maritimes, the son gets the inheritance.) Finding her new environment unendurable, Maud answers Everett’s ad for a live-in housekeeper and, though he’s an ornery loner and sometimes a brute, they become lovers and finally – at Maud’s insistence – they marry. It’s an uphill odd-couple romance in which her spirit and humor and common sense slowly bring out unexpected sensitivities in him. And her whimsical nature-inspired art, with which she decorates his ramshackle house – a single room with a sleeping loft – becomes an additional means of income for them (he makes a meager living peddling fish) after an American, Sandra (Kari Matchett), who summers in the area starts to purchase her little homemade cards and then commissions her to make paintings. Over time Sandra becomes her best friend.

The movie focuses somewhat on Maud’s painting – which has links to Rouault and Chagall, among others – but more on her relationship with Everett, which is the reason the other bio that came most often to mind while I was watching it was The Whole Wide World (1996), with Vincent D’Onofrio as the 1930s Texas pulp writer Robert E. Howard (the author of Conan the Barbarian) and Renée Zellweger as Novalyne Price, the schoolteacher who falls in love with him. But The Whole Wide World is ultimately a tragedy – Howard’s demons defeat him after the death of his mother (Ann Wedgeworth) – while Maudie, understated as it is, has been shaped by Walsh and screenwriter Sherry White as a triumph-of-the-spirit romantic drama. Maud handles her ailment, which hobbles her walking, and its social implications (she’s a figure of fun for the local children) with gracious patience. And she rebels, quietly but forcefully, against the tyranny of her relatives and their stinginess and want of charity and compassion. When Charles comes by to check out her home gallery after she starts to become known for her art, she senses immediately that his motives are financial and sends him packing. She has the qualities they lack: when she finds out that Ida is dying, she doesn’t hesitate to visit her, despite the disapproving attitude her aunt has always had toward her. During their reconciliation Ida observes with amazement that Maud is the only member of their family with the capacity for happiness.

Maud Lewis works on a painting in her home. (Courtesy Art Gallery of Nova Scotia)

Everett has that capacity too, and the capacity for love, but Maud has to draw them out of him, and they spend some time apart (she retreats to Sandra’s for a while) before he shows that he’s earned the right to get her back. Everett was raised in an orphanage; his mistrust and cheapness are hard-won consequences of his upbringing. It isn’t surprising, since she has so few options, that she sticks it out with him despite his initial unkindness, but it is remarkable that she figures out how to make a comfortable life with him, and finally a happy and devoted one.

As an actor Sally Hawkins doesn’t have a single conventional impulse, and when she tries to give a straight realist performance she flails and it usually ends up looking fake. But stylization comes as naturally to her as breathing, so when she gets to play an offbeat role like Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky or the title character in Maudie, she’s inspired – a sort of acting genius. I wouldn’t have thought of her and Ethan Hawke as a screen couple, but then you wouldn’t imagine Maud and Everett as a match – the chemistry is, has to be, beneath the surface. And these days there doesn’t seem to be anything Hawke can’t play. For some years now he has been routinely turning in superbly calibrated supporting performances in movies that stay off moviegoers’ radar like What Doesn’t Kill You and 10,000 Saints and Maggie’s Plan. More recently he’s really begun to experiment, taking on roles that demand colors and tones he’s never tried before. I didn’t see a better piece of acting in 2016 than his portrayal of the junkie jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue, and in Maudie he gets both Everett’s guarded, lashing-out side and his long-hidden soft side – his eventual recognition that this woman with a gift for making art without training and a gift for living life has touched his with a special grace. At one point Maud tells an interviewer that her work comes from her love of nature and that for her an open window is an entrée into it. At the end of the movie, after she has died, we see Everett rambling around a now-empty house, profoundly unsettled in his grief. The house is dark except for the light streaming in from the window from which Maud observed the airy world she so adored. We don’t know how Everett will cope with his loss (in fact, he outlived his wife by not quite a decade; he was killed by an intruder in 1979), or whether he will recognize what she bequeathed to him by sweetening his sour outlook on the world – that is, whether he will dwell in darkness or in the light. The movie leaves it up in the air, leaving us both wary and hopeful.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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