It’s easy to be impressed by the sheer physical effort Sally Hawkins puts into her performance as popular Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis. Maud was born in 1903 with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which led to the hunched-over appearance, crippled hands and near-bowlegged walk that plagued her adulthood. All of this Hawkins has to mimic in Aisling Walsh’s biopic, Maudie, and based on the results on screen, Hawkins certainly seems to have absorbed the mannerisms naturally.
But if acting was judged merely on the basis of technique, then anyone could impersonate a real-life figure, reproducing gestures and mannerisms with something close to absolute fidelity, and be considered great. Truly great acting, though, is as much about the inward as it is about the outward—the spirit, not just the letter. Thankfully, Hawkins’ performance in Maudie is as indelible a feat of psychological imagination as it is of physical dedication.
Maud, at least as she’s reimagined here by Walsh, Hawkins and screenwriter Sherry White, comes off as not too far removed in spirit from Poppy, the character Hawkins played in arguably her highest-profile role to date, in Mike Leigh’s 2008 Happy-Go-Lucky. Though Maud is less brash than Poppy ever was, a similar child-like optimism animates them both to such a degree that they have a quietly profound effect on a male foil. In Maud’s case, this is Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), an ultra-masculine fish peddler who reluctantly takes on Maud as a housemaid but who gradually finds himself falling in love with her, at least in his own gruff ways.
It’s that child-like innocence behind the brightly colored canvases—many of them outdoor landscapes and humble everyday scenes she painted from memory—that made her name and sustains her reputation to this day. Still, Maudie doesn’t go into extensive detail about Maud’s art, and one might need to go into Walsh’s film with a cursory knowledge of Maud Lewis beforehand, because the filmmakers aren’t interested in offering an art-appreciation lesson. Walsh doesn’t even really delve much into the kind of details of Maud’s childhood—the loss of her two parents at an early age, her sheltered life after she quit school when she was 14—that perhaps influenced her artistic vision. It’s quite possible that reading a quick Wikipedia summary about Maud Lewis might prove more enlightening than Maudie is in understanding why she’s a revered artistic figure.
And yet, considering that the film begins just before Maud meets Everett in the late 1930s, it’s clear where the filmmakers’ interests lie: in this couple’s dysfunctional relationship, and how Maud’s indomitable spirit eventually conquers Everett’s macho stoicism. In a sense, Everett—who has nary an artistic bone in his body, but who nevertheless gradually comes to appreciate Maud’s simplicity and generosity—could be seen as a stand-in for the public at large, many who were charmed enough by that same simplicity and generosity in the paintings she created and eventually sold en masse.
One doesn’t need any academic spoon-feeding to appreciate Maud Lewis’s art—Maudie suggests that her art and her life were one and the same, and that to know the artist is to understand the art. Above all, though, it’s all there in Hawkins’s performance, which transcends surface mimicry to conjure up a deeply moving portrait of a humble woman who lived for her paintings and quite possibly even changed some lives in the process.
Director: Aisling Walsh
Writer: Sherry White
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Ethan Hawke, Kari Matchett, Zachary Bennett, Gabrielle Rose, Billy MacLellan
Release Date: June 16, 2017
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and The Village Voice, in addition to Paste. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.