Thirteen and a half feet long, 12 1/2 feet wide, a tiny, brightly colored roadside house in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia, contained the married lives of Maud and Everett Lewis, a folk artist and a fish peddler, respectively, for 32 years.
For any couple that’s not much room to maneuver. In fact the setting, and the modest whole of the new movie “Maudie,” can barely contain the sheer volume of capital-A Acting in this biopic focused on one of Canada’s best-known painters, a self-taught “outsider” artist before that phrase was in vogue.
Sally Hawkins, Oscar nominee for “Blue Jasmine,” plays Maud. An actress of sharp, birdlike movements and enormous emotional reserves, Hawkins performs opposite Ethan Hawke (a two-time acting Oscar nominee himself) as Everett, who met Maud when he put up a sign for a housemaid. Shunted off by her family to live with a stern, unhappy aunt (Gabrielle Rose), Maud had contracted rheumatoid arthritis at a young age. In the movie, treated as an invalid by her relations, the young woman seizes her chance when, at the local dry goods store, she overhears Everett Lewis mutter something about a hired girl.
Sherry White’s screenplay taps each relationship development into place, tidily. At first Everett treats Maud like an unloved animal. He is verbally and physically abusive; in one early scene, he reminds her angrily that in the pecking order of his small, mean life, she rates lower than the dogs and the chickens in the yard.
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All the while Maud paints her way through her circumstances. Her childlike images of flowers, animals and the surrounding landscape in all seasons became more than a vocation. She painted greeting cards on cardboard and sold them for pennies; on beaver board and used linoleum tile, she created larger scenes. What money she made went straight to Everett. Then, in 1965, a CBC news crew showed up at the Lewis door, and suddenly Maud was famous, even legendary, by Nova Scotia standards. The Lewises weren’t rich, but they were no longer poor and obscure.
The kind of love these two came to know grew out of serious hardship and a stunted, sputtery kind of communication. “Maudie” works valiantly, and not entirely convincingly, to suggest a happy-ish marriage, all things considered. Irish director Aisling Walsh shot the picture in pristine corners, dressed for several different decades of the 20th century, of Newfoundland and Labrador standing in for Nova Scotia. Much of “Maudie” confines the actors to a replica of the house that now resides in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax.
Watching the film, I believed just about everything Hawkins did, alone or with a scene partner, and I believed approximately 46 percent of Hawke’s efforts. Hawkins only goes so far in suggesting the full extent of Maud’s gnarled hands and severe body contortions, but she’s such a vivid presence, so alert to what can be mined from the space in between her lines, she lifts “Maudie” above the pedestrian. Hawke has a wonderful voice he’s learning to use in increasingly characterful ways, but in creating a character very different from himself, he’s right on the verge of caricature the entire time. Scratching his belly, contorting his mouth in a permanent downward scrunch of disapproval and disappointment, Hawke’s Everett looks and feels like studious homework, not effortless interpretation. Sometimes less is more, and an actor can take all sorts of cues from just how small a real-life character’s physical environment really was.
Cast: Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke
Director: Aisling Walsh
Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic content and brief sexuality)