Like Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky several years before it, Aisling Walsh’s Maudie proves to be an remarkable showcase for the subtle gifts of actress Sally Hawkins. In the lead role, Hawkins stars as famous Nova Scotian folk artist Maud Lewis who grew in notoriety while maintaining a humble lifestyle in the tiny home she shared with her husband. Plagued by rheumatoid arthritis, her paintings were modest in size though loaded with imagination. The film is true to both that humility and charming spirit, especially thanks to the absorbing performance by Hawkins and Ethan Hawke as her grumbling husband Everett.
Though grounded in a familiar biopic structure, Maudie remains engaging throughout despite its steadfastness to formula. Its depth of feeling digs only as deep as its curiosity for Maud’s inner self, which is sometimes fleeting but never less than genuine on both fronts. The film’s ambitions lie mostly with embodying Maud’s cheery outlook, the insistence that a second look at familiar presentation provides a different picture entirely. That perspective keeps recurring character beats from being repetitive, and Walsh finds different meaning to Everett and Maud’s behavior from slightly different contexts in their relationship with her two fantastic performers.
Hawkins imbues a quiet defiance to Maud’s smile and stiff gait, presenting the woman without pity in a way that the screenplay sometimes lacks. Not mannered by the physicality, Hawkins invites you into both Maud’s artistic inspiration and complex decision-making in life. It’s thanks to Hawkins that we see her as defined by joy instead of pain.
Hawke is precisely the actor the film needs to warm us to the gruff and emotionally abusive Everett, as appealing as ever but also the kind of actor we want to understand and see as well-intentioned. Everett’s masculine fragility is perhaps more palatable in the intuitive and soulful hands of Hawke, but the film is all too eager to forgive his bullshit. Still Maudie is bothersome for the extent it excuses the abuse and casual injustice that she endures, a passive stance that the thoughtful performances of the two leads can’t rescue the film.
Maudie gets somewhat caught in presenting its own timelines, with the passage of time occasionally interminable with inconsistent visual cues. Maud and Everett’s aging is rendered with impressive makeup that still seems to go back and forth in time when the film does not. It makes for a confusing final act of accelerated and condensed plotting that somewhat distracts from the performances and narrative.
With as much vibrant color as the artist’s work, Maudie is a lovely biopic with some snagging character perceptions. However, the film’s pure and simple feeling is smart for how it keeps the spotlight on Hawkins – who gives another immersive performance to her list of many.