By Eleanor Ringel Cater
If there ever were a movie that shouldn’t work, it’s “Maudie.”
To begin with, it’s a very familiar tale: The odd couple who triumph despite their, well, oddness.
However, Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins) and her husband, Everett (Ethan Hawke) weren’t just any odd couple. They were odd-as-hell even before they met, the sort of outliers who shouldn’t stand a chance a anything resembling happiness.
Yet – and this is a true story –they led lives of, well, whatever would be the opposite of Thoreau’s lives of quiet desperation. Certainly not lives of quiet joy and not precisely lives of quiet contentment, either. But however you describe their life together, it’s somehow recognizable as, in its own way, enviable.
Let me put it this way: If you had to choose between the Charles and Diana model of togetherness and the Maudie and Everett version, it’s pretty clear who had the better time.
And “Maudie” manages to capture that happiness, quirky and hardscrabble as it was, without wallowing in sentimentality or cheap “feel-good” cheer.
Most Americans have never heard of Maude Lewis. She was a Canadian outsider artist whose primitive paintings of butterflies, flowers, bluebirds and the like call to mind Nellie Mae Rowe (Howard Finster is a bit too hallucinatory).
Born in a tiny village in Nova Scotia (well-played in the film by Newfoundland), she was, as she says, “born funny.” She’s hunched over, walks with a limp, is plagued by crippling arthritis and has a way of interacting with others that could be dismissed as “slow.” She’s the sort of misfit kids throw rocks at – which she shrugs off with her characteristic optimism: “Some people don’t like it if you’re different.”
Everett is different, too, but optimistic is not the word that comes to mind. A taciturn, misanthropic recluse who ekes out a living as a fisherman, he posts a notice asking for a woman to keep house for him. Maudie, who’s been dumped with a dour, judgmental aunt by her greedy, uncaring brother, takes the job. It’s not exactly love at first sight, but eventually, they get married.
And Maudie gets discovered by a stylish New York gallery owner. One glimpse of Maudie’s colorful little paintings that now cover the cottage’s walls, stairs, windows, everywhere and she knows she can sell the work in Manhattan.
“Maudie” isn’t one of those makes-you-gasp movies. It’s much too slow, too reflective for that. Rather, it’s the sort of film that creeps up on you and doesn’t let go.
And while kudos are due director Aisling Walsh, the picture simply wouldn’t work without Hawkins and Hawke. They bring such humanity to their parts, such unaffected commitment, that you don’t even think in terms of “uplifting” or “life-affirming.” (Though, of course, it is both these things.)
Rather, you think, what an immersive and strangely transporting picture this is. Why wasn’t I bored? Why didn’t I want to leave? Why didn’t I check my watch more? Why … well, why are other peoples’ stories, done right, so damn involving?