The mean, miserly curmudgeon whom arthritic Maudie has come to work for lays down the law in the cruelest terms.
“Let me tell you how it is around here,” Everett bellows. “There’s ME. There’s them dogs. Them chickens. Then YOU.”
It speaks volumes about the crippled Maudie’s desperation that she chooses to stay on as live-in housekeeper in a weathered fish peddler’s cottage in 1930s Nova Scotia. She’s suffered from rheumatoid arthritis since childhood. Her family has hidden her away with a callous, disapproving aunt. She smokes, drinks, walks with a doubled-over limp and tries to not let the fact that kids throw rocks at her when he passes.
“Some people don’t like it if you’re different.”
The inarticulate brute she’s to work for abuses her. And as she’s played by “Happy Go Lucky” Sally Hawkins, we fret that we’ll never see that shy but electric smile that literally lights up the screen.
“Maudie” is a conventionally unconventional “life of an artist” film biography. We see the obstacles, ranging from the gnarled fists she uses to hold a brush to family dismissal to local disdain for her work. She’s a town character. “My six year-old could paint as well.”
But he doesn’t, and couldn’t. Maudie Lewis was one of the great Canadian primitive artists of the twentieth century. And Hawkins shoulders her burdens without complaint in this simple, sedate romance with art.
Because as mean as Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) is — the movie takes some liberties — the relationship these two actors recreate from Sherry White’s simple script is a slow-motion marvel.
Maudie is desperate to escape a family that has deemed her a burden and an embarrassment. Everett, the village crank, has advertised for a maid.
“Lookin’ for a woman.”
“What d’ye think I am?”
From that unpromising beginning, through every insult, rude rejection of her food, cleaning skills or feminine wiles and every public humiliation, Aisling Walsh’s film lets us see the tiniest degrees of softening. The moment Everett finally lets Maudie ride in the push-cart he makes his deliveries in pops off the screen like a “You had me at ‘Hello'” kiss.
Hawkins easily slips into this character like the other eccentrics and downtrodden women in her repertoire. Hawke does the real stretching here, dressing down, roughing up and achieving “utterly detestable” — at first.
“I don’t like most people,” Everett grumbles.
“Well, they don’t like you.”
Whatever life hurls at Maudie, she still has her paintings. She does seasonal scenes of the life she sees around her, Christmas cards. It takes a New York vacationer (Kari Matchett) to see talent — “Show me how you see the world!” — and exploit it. Maudie is paid a pittance for her paintings, even as her fame grows.
The best way to progress through a story whose arc is this familiar might be to deal with the well-worn touchstones in such a life in brisk strokes. Director Walsh and screenwriter White focus, instead, on the slow-boil romance, two outsiders who almost grudgingly make that love connection.
This is more “Iris” than “Frida” or “Seraphine,” though anyone who has ever seen the screen story of an artist — “Basquiat,” “Pollock,” etc. — will ease into the well-established rhythms of such films.
Its nearly two-hours on the screen can be a bit of a trudge, at times. Even though “Maudie” limits itself these two characters packed into this tiny house, it never feels as if anything’s been left out.
We see their world and their relationship through their eyes, not the outside world’s. Hawkings and Hawke turn that myopic view into lives as dark, rich and full as “Mr. Turner” with performances that bite, bend and breathe.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for some thematic content and brief sexuality.
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Ethan Hawke, Kari Matchett
Credits:Directed by Aisling Walsh, script by Sherry White. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:55