“Maudie is reverential of its subject without ever investigating her personhood beyond skin-deep trivia.”
by Ken Bakely
Somehow, Aisling Walsh’s Maudie takes us through the life of 20th century Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins), dramatizes an engaging and largely unpublicized story, and yet in this attempt to share a chapter of art history, never lets us believe that it finds any of this interesting. The film is written and shot with a perfunctory biographical simmer. Actors sport more and more gray hair dye on their heads and old-age makeup on their faces, stoop down a little, and talk with slightly more overscripted fatalism every twenty minutes or so. It’s the fall out after a prime first act, with early scenes featuring Maud marrying a brusque fisherman named Everett (Ethan Hawke). Already his live-in housekeeper in their cramped Nova Scotia cabin, this tumultuous union traces the outline of a contemplative domestic drama, as their frequent squabbles indirectly charge Maud’s creative energy.
Hawke and Hawkins are a solid pair, but the film doesn’t let them take on the challenge of bridging their characters’ personal and professional gaps. It’s telling that Walsh frames actual Maud Lewis paintings – as colorful, lively, and sweeping as they are – with fleeting sameness. There’s a dissonance to the vivid qualities of the subject’s work when compared to Maudie’s muddled proceedings. The movie absorbs and spits out information with immense disconnect. When a montage set in the early 1950s shows parades of cars driving into town to buy her art, and VIPs from around the globe add her paintings to their collections, it’s treated with all the attentiveness of a glorified throwaway line, used as a generic marker for varying rungs of success. Even her lifelong affliction with rheumatoid arthritis is turned into background business, segueing into a later series of health problems to indicate that the character has aged.
It’s all so static that it almost feels fictional. If one didn’t know that Maudie was based on a true story, it would be easy to dismiss it as a screenplay of curbed inconsequence; the notion of art’s power to transform its creators and consumers rendered generic by an episodic telling of one woman overcoming amorphous adversity. The movie doesn’t resort to title cards at the end explaining what happened to the characters in the decades following, it does something worse: run archival clips of the Lewises over the credits. Reminding us that Maud Lewis was a real person, with all the implied complexities manifesting themselves in her work, only underline these shortcomings. Shoehorning in sequences explaining why Lewis is important is a poor substitute for organically depicting her rise to prominence.
Similarly, her relationship with Everett is portrayed as difficult, even abusive at times. It’s furthered by the traditional bent of their village, inherently suspicious of their marriage and its origins. But the dull precision with which we speed through the early stages to connect it to Maud’s art renders her marriage another clunky device on her road to folk-icon status. The couple’s insistence on continuing a pious lifestyle in their small home, even when the proceeds from her art could have afforded them so much more, is just another shallow piece. Maudie is reverential of its subject without ever investigating her personhood beyond skin-deep trivia. Though Hawkins’ performance is delightful, little can be done about the prescribed blankness of the script’s treatment.
In that sense, it’s no coincidence that the film’s most affecting scenes are wordless. They involve characters walking or driving through the wide and open landscapes around their cabin, as vast clearings stretch on in the background. Not only striking from a visual standpoint, it contextualizes Maud and Everett within the world, as Maud’s deceptively simple vocation hits cross-cultural universality. She depicted communities and nature with a wide perspective but a warm thoughtfulness. In these moments, Maudie comes close to emulating this effect, capturing a fraction of the quiet power of its titular character’s work. But then it returns to biopic purgatory, with the obvious plotting and starchy dialogue to boot. The filmmaking here is technically competent, and avoids fatal flaws, but there’s nary a hint of style or inertia in the whole thing.