It's no secret that we're living through some of America's darkest days right now. The shadow in D.C. looms like the darkness over Mordor, and I don't bust out the apocalyptic Tolkienisms lightly.
So we should take our candles against the darkness wherever we can find them. Maudie, the Canadian biographical drama slowly meandering across American art-house theaters, is a sweet film that ultimately celebrates the power and light of creativity. It tells the real-life story of Maud Lewis, Canada's most famous folk artist, who, despite crippling rheumatoid arthritis, painted every day of her adult life on every surface she could find.
Born in 1903, Lewis lived in poverty in rural Nova Scotia, selling her paintings for twenty-five cents to those who happened upon her one-room house. She shared the space with her husband, Everett, a local fishmonger, and sometimes accompanied him on his rounds—buy three fish and get a painting. Only toward the end of her life did she finally receive the attention she deserved. Legend has it that Richard Nixon bought two of her paintings for the White House.
Lewis is portrayed by the brilliant English actress Sally Hawkins, who disappears into the role, her body curled into a painful, perpetual knot. Neither Hawkins nor director Aisling Walsh linger on Lewis's disability, though, and that's a good thing. A story like this can easily get lost in maudlin martyrdom. Instead, it pivots on Lewis's indefatigable optimism in the face of some truly grim circumstances. Hawkins has a thousand-watt smile, and when she flashes it out from the twisted woolen bundle that is Lewis, it's a ray of light through a leaden sky.
Ethan Hawke plays Everett, which is a shame. His grunted line readings are a dubious choice, but this is really less of a performance issue than a casting mistake. Hawke is too good-looking, his intelligence too evident. He doesn't look like an illiterate fishmonger; he looks like a movie star playing an illiterate fishmonger.
Director Walsh doesn't try to do too much with the story of Lewis. She sticks close to the biographical details and makes no attempt to plumb the deeper depths of Lewis's outsider art. There's a sense of commissioned portraiture (judging by the opening titles, the movie was funded by several dozen regional Canadian film offices).
But what the film does convey, quite powerfully, is the enduring power of the creative act. When Lewis paints, looking out the cracked window of her clapboard house, a gentle wonder pulses from the screen as she transcends her pain through art. It's a beautiful thing to watch, and it triggers a hopeful feeling. If you could use a feeling like that these days, go see Maudie.