"MAUDIE" — 3 stars — Sally Hawkins, Ethan Hawke, Kari Matchett; Billy MacLellan; PG-13 (thematic content and brief sexuality); in general release
"Maudie" tells the quiet, inspiring story of Maud Lewis, a humble Canadian folk artist whose determined spirit overcame her modest and debilitating circumstances.
We meet Maud (Sally Hawkins) as a young adult with a passion for painting, living with her domineering Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) in coastal Nova Scotia, Canada. As bad as her aunt is, her brother Charles (Zachary Bennett) is worse. Because of her debilitating physical condition, brought on by the early development of rheumatoid arthritis, Charles abandons her with Aunt Ida, convinced that Maud will never be able to care for herself.
Initially, Maud's defiant spirit only takes her as far as the local dance hall, but one fateful day she responds to an advertisement for a housemaid. Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), a local fish peddler, needs help keeping track of his cluttered life and, after a bit of persuasion, Maud convinces Everett to take her on.
It isn't long before Everett's live-in housemaid begins to assert her true value, and "Maudie" charmingly shares the story of how Maud wins Everett's heart, eventually marrying him, and channels her love of painting into a successful and unexpected career. As she tries to whip Everett's house into shape, she slowly sets about painting murals all over his tiny rural home. Soon after, she catches the attention of a vacationing New Yorker (and future close friend) named Sandra (Kari Matchett), whose financial and emotional support spurs Maud's efforts to grow a thriving painting business.
Hawkins disappears into the physical demands of her role, absorbing the motion and mannerisms of Lewis' diminutive frame. But more importantly, Hawkins is able to emote Lewis' warm and knowing spirit, often with little more than an awkward smile. Archival footage of the real Lewis at the closing credits demonstrates how well Hawkins is able to re-create the role. Hawke is also effective as the short-tempered, socially averse Everett, whose heart is slowly melted over the film's 115-minute running time, even when he struggles to fight back jealousy over Maud's sudden notoriety.
Maud and Everett almost make for a rural Canadian version of Rocky and Adrian Balboa, only with Maud as Rocky, swapping out the championship boxing for folk paintings. Maud's influence slowly grows on Everett the way her murals gradually take over their home (which has been preserved by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia), and their dynamic feels spot on, especially later in the film after age has slowed them down. As much as "Maudie" is about celebrating the work of a famous painter, it even feels more effective as a character study of a curious but touching relationship that succeeds in spite of some unorthodox bumps in its road.
Director Aisling Walsh's film is a quiet charmer, never rising high in its volume, but never letting you wander too far from where you should be focused, either. For moviegoers neck-deep in the summer blockbuster season, it might provide a simple change of pace from the world of CGI superheroes and big-budget action spectacles. But regardless of when you see it, it will say a lot about the nature of quiet persistence.
"Maudie" is rated PG-13 for thematic content and brief sexuality; running time: 115 minutes.