“Maudie” is one of those movies that triumphs over its worst instincts (and your well-honed doubts). There’s a lot to get past, including an opener that engages in some generic place-setting, and a score that insistently tries to lighten the darker moods. But stick with the movie for its leads, Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke, a beautifully matched pair who open up two closed people, unleashing torrents of feeling.
Hawkins plays Maud Lewis, who, when the story starts, is in her early 30s and struggling to maintain a fragile independence. Her brother, Charles (Zachary Bennett), has sold the family home, and dumps Maud on Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose), a dour scold.
One day at the grocery store, she is nearly knocked over by a rough, unruly and reclusive fish peddler, Everett Lewis (Hawke). He lives in a tiny white wooden house on a spit of land in Nova Scotia, with only a couple of dogs and a flock of chickens for company. Having decided that he needs a housekeeper, he posts an ad that Maud surreptitiously steals from the store. She has figured a way out of Aunt Ida’s dominion and straight into a new life.
That life emerges with pinprick detail, framed by wind-swept landscapes and the bright flowers and birds that Maud begins painting, painful stroke by stroke, on the shack’s walls, steps, pots and windows, vivid manifestations of her will to create. Mostly, it is a life that emerges through the contrapuntal performances of Hawkins and Hawke, who, with bobbing heads, mutter and murmur, bring you into the private world of two outsiders isolated by geography, poverty, disability, temperament and habit. It’s easy, especially, to admire Hawkins’ technical skill — the private smiles and halting, crooked walk — but the beauty of her performance is that soon you see only Maud.
Directed by Aisling Walsh, with a script by Sherry White, “Maudie” is based — or, perhaps more truly, inspired — by the life of Maud Lewis (1903-70). A self-taught artist who lived in extreme poverty much of her adult life, Lewis struggled with what appears to have been juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, painting bold, colorful scenes of red trees and black cats with brushes tucked in a tiny, gnarled hand. If you didn’t know her name, you might not know that she was real. The story’s historical basis isn’t announced; there are none of the usual biopic introductions, no text to set the time and place, only some brief, closing documentary images that suggest that the movie has gently prettified the truth.
The film doesn’t cop to that, which doesn’t lessen its appeal. The distancing from the real Lewis registers as a commercial calculation, as does the emphasis on Maud and Everett’s relationship, which here evolves into an achingly moving love story. How much of it is true, including that love’s depths, remains unclear; certainly the movie deviates sharply in sweep and detail from some accounts, most notably Lance Woolaver’s biography “Maud Lewis: The Heart on the Door.” Woolaver has called Lewis’ life desperate and her husband terrible.
Like many screen biographies, “Maudie” vacillates unsteadily between the brute realities of a difficult existence and its palatable imagery. The movie doesn’t erase the hard edges of Lewis’ life. Instead, it attenuates them — a brutal slap across the face, you suspect, stands in for more instances of physical abuse — and casts many of Maud and Everett’s difficulties as personal ordeals, playing down the institutional forces, like an orphanage, that discreetly hover in the background. There’s an argument to be made against such softening, though there’s something necessary about the fantasies we make of our lives as we spin beauty and hope from despair.