Suffering for her art

Written By: Patrick Mulcahy
Published: August 5, 2017 Last modified: August 5, 2017


Director: Aisling Walsh


The Nova Scotia set-biopic Maudie describes the relationship between Canadian amateur artist, Maud Lewis née Dowley (Sally Hawkins) and surly fish peddler, Everett (Ethan Hawke), the man she eventually married. The impression given by the drama, written by Sherry White and directed by Aisling Walsh, is that Maud is ungainly and awkward. But she was born in 1903 with no chin and suffered throughout her life from rheumatoid arthritis – her fingers were painfully deformed. Painting was an act of determination.

When we first meet her, Maud is abandoned by her brother (Zachary Bennett) and forced to live with her aunt, Ida Germaine (Gabrielle Rose). She has no desire to be a dependant and gets a job working for Everett as the only applicant for the position of live-in housekeeper. She is barely up to the task. Nevertheless, she puts her energy to work filling what is essentially an over-sized hut, twelve feet by twelve feet, with paintings that resemble those made by children: bright colours, simple subjects, like cats, with no shading or resonance. Without any captions to tell us how much time is passing, the film traces the slow and unlikely recognition that Maud receives, eventually being the subject of a news report and exciting the interest of Richard Nixon’s White House. You expect it is the rather unusual nature of her pastime in a relatively remote location that elicited attention.

Without any make-up, ageing or otherwise, Hawkins portrays Maud over thirty years, from moving in to Everett’s home in 1938 to her death in 1970. Forced to share a bed owing to the house’s small size and general clutter, Maud demands that Everett marry her if he is interested in sex. Everett remains a curmudgeon throughout his life, suspicious of others; he is even suspected of exploiting Maud when her paintings are sold for $10 (Canadian) each. The drama mirrors Maud’s steadfast sense of purpose with an evenness of pace and an absence of high drama.

The power of the film falls on the performances. In what is emphatically not an awards-magnet style turn, Hawkins embodies Maud’s simple unpretentious demeanour. Her painting is impulsive, a way of filling time. Hawke’s Everett is a class-one grump. The actor is miscast; he’s too cultured and urban for the part. It is difficult to shake off his embodiment of a somewhat unimaginative writer in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. The Hawke that we know would be above mercantile transactions. He would ask a customer whether they want fish or not and then, when the customer walks away with indifference, say, ‘you gotta eat’. The part would be better played by an actor with lived-in looks, a John Hawkes, for example. Coincidentally, Hawkins and Hawkes have worked together on Charlie Kaufman’s 2014 TV pilot, How and Why.

Maudie has been described as a tear-jerker, but it doesn’t plunder its subject for emotional drama. It describes a loveless marriage tolerated by two people who didn’t have other options. The art that Maud created exudes a warmth and wonder that was not evident in her life. For her it wasn’t just therapy, rather an alternate decorous reality. The film joins Big Eyes, Tim Burton’s 2014 biopic of Margaret Keane, as another film about an unlikely artist exploited to some degree by their spouse. It has modest ambitions and delivers modest results.  

About Patrick Mulcahy

Patrick Mulcahy is a film critic for Tribune and Chartist, to which he has contributed for over twenty years.