Maudie review – Sally Hawkins adds a flourish to portrait of reclusive artist

This biopic of Canadian painter Maud Lewis sticks by its less-is-more ethos to the end, but Hawkins and Ethan Hawke turn a tragic tale into an absorbing one

Sally Hawkins will get a lot of attention for her portrayal of the outsider Canadian artist Maud Lewis in the new film Maudie. They’ll talk about her voice, which ranges from low, frog-like croaks to mousy squeaks all twirled-up with a rich Nova Scotian accent. And they’ll talk about her physical transformation, hunched over from acute arthritis and a bad leg.

For me the key to the performance is that Hawkins always appears as if an invisible person has just whispered a hilarious joke in her ear and she’s struggling with all her might not to let anyone know. Optimism (or, at least, exuberance) in the face of dire circumstances is what makes a tragic life bearable, and the same can be said for watching this movie. If anyone other than Hawkins were in this film, it would be very hard to recommend. With her in almost every scene, it is a lovely, tiny character study.

When we first meet Maud (she’s only called Maudie once, at the end) she’s living with her aunt in Nova Scotia, her uncaring older brother having dumped her there after selling their parents’ house. She can’t take care of herself, she’s told, especially after “what’s happened”, and Maud, a morose collection of tics and stammers, sneaks out at night to attend jazz concerts in a converted barn. Then, the day after a shouting match with her aunt, as Maud is buying canned goods at a general store, he walks in.


Scholars and philosophers have long marvelled at the strange behaviour of the human heart. Ethan Hawke’s Everett is a loud, brusque man with a short fuse and small vocabulary. And yet, when Maud sees him post an ad for a live-in housemaid, something draws her to him.

It could just be that it’s the only possible job around, and she needs to do something with her life, but after five minutes with this cruel, nasty fish pedlar, any reasonable person would be running in the other direction. Still, she ends up moving in, abiding his verbal (and occasionally physical) abuse. They share a bed and things get very strange in the consent department. Eventually they marry, and the filthy one-room shack gradually starts to brighten.

The visual change is due to Maud’s one source of happiness: painting. Everett begrudgingly lets her paint when she’s done cooking and cleaning, and this eventually leads to a rich woman summering up north from New York going wild for her cards and small canvases. In time, Maud becomes a minor celebrity. (Even Richard Nixon, then vice president of the United States, wants one of her paintings.)

The film’s most remarkable element is reflective of both its main characters: the refusal to change gears. Maud is content with Everett – he goes off to sell fish, she stays in their minuscule home crafting small nature scenes with bright colours. Everett still thinks anyone buying her work is an idiot and it never dawns on him to say anything supportive. Expressions of affection are for other couples, and this pair, dismissed by society, have found something resembling comfort living on the fringes.

While there are some third-act twists and minor flashes of catharsis, Aisling Walsh’s film stays true to its understated ethos. Why bother saying anything grand when you can focus on what’s in the frame? As Maud gets older her spine contracts even more; she’s like a collapsing star, still exuding brightness before she burns out. Maudie celebrates the power in the petite, and while some may wonder what the point of it all was, others will be taken by the craft.


Jordan Hoffman

The GuardianTramp

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