Maudie: A Small Life with a Big Heart


MAUDIE (2016/17)
Directed by Aisling Walsh
Mongrel Media, 115 minutes, PG-13

This film's titular character is Maud (Dowley) Lewis (1903-1970), could be considered the Grandma Moses of Nova Scotia, except that Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1860-1961) lived a charmed life compared to that of Lewis.

Lewis is played by British actress Sally Hawkins, who contorts her stick figure body into all manner of grotesque proportions to portray the rheumatoid arthritis that plagued Ms. Lewis for her entire life. This was but one of many of the bad cards Maud was dealt. Teased unmercifully by other children for her deformities and assumed retardation, Lewis left school after the fifth grade. After both parents died within two years of each other (1935 and 1937), Maud lived with authoritarian older brother Charles (Zachary Bennett), who farmed her out to her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) when she was impregnated and jilted by a local lad.

This is where Maudie picks up the tale. In the hands of director Aisling Walsh and screenwriter Sherry White, Lewis emerges as a sneakily assertive woman who finds joy and beauty despite her physical challenges and the ugliness of some of the villagers. That ugliness included the man she eventually married, Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), a fisherman, woodsman, and jack-of-all-trades with whom she lived in a 10 by 12 foot shack from 1937 until her death 24 years later. If the size sounds daunting, consider also that the cottage was on an isolated dirt road across a causeway more than a mile from the Digby County village of Marshalltown. Winters are long, deep, and hard in a place where the Bay of Fundy and St. Mary's Bay come together. Imagine spending it with Everett, who tells Maud that his levels of concern were, in order, "me, the dogs, the chickens, and then you." He probably exaggerated in placing her fourth!

Art was Lewis' salvation. The film concentrates on the years 1945 through 1970, a time in which Lewis transformed the cottage into a colorful canvas of flowers, animals, plants, and village life as viewed through a window. A fortuitous meeting with Sandra (Kari Matchett), a New Yorker who summered in Marshalltown, led to commissions of folk art greeting cards and then experimentation with larger works (8-10") painted on scraps of wood, which she peddled from the cottage. None sold for more than $10 in her lifetime, though she was indeed hailed as the Canadian Grandma Moses, was lionized by a Canadian Broadcasting Company documentary, and even Richard Nixon owned two of her paintings. Earlier this year one of her works fetched $45,000 at auction. (In 2006, a Moses painting went for a record $1.2 million.)

The Lewis cabin now stands in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax* and a steel replica marks its original spot in Marshalltown. Posthumous fame always seems unfair, but Walsh emphasizes Lewis' humanity rather exiling her to a tragic realm. As she is fading, Hawkins-as-Lewis tells us that her small world is the one she chose and that her window was the frame through which she viewed and painted it. Hawkins gives a bold and convincing performance. To underscore an earlier observation, Hawkins twists her body to convey Lewis' crippling arthritis. No prosthetics were used and Hawkins' physicality should draw rightful comparisons to the Oscar-winning turn of Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot (1989).

Were I nominating Oscars, though, I'd hand one to Ethan Hawke, who endows the brutish and gauche Everett Lewis with more depth and dignity than he had in real life. Hawke is like a reed that bends with a gale but never breaks. We come to like him more than we first did, but no one will walk away mistaking Everett Lewis for a good man. At his core he is as icy and difficult as a February blizzard.

Kudos also to Walsh for the ways in which geography, topography, and weather are subtly woven into the film's fabric. (The filming actually took place in Newfoundland, which evokes post-World War II Digby County.) Walsh shows the fragility of summer and the harshness of winter, but uses repetition and understatement to present challenges that lesser directors convey with melodramatic one-offs. Walsh and White did take a few biographical liberties—Sandra is a composite used to heighten contrasts between urban sophistication with homespun perspectives; Everett was worse than presented, and Maud perhaps not as sunny**—but little is sacrificed in stretching the story at the margins. Maudie is a triumph. Like last year's Icelandic film Rams, it testifies that it is still possible to make small movies with big hearts that beat louder than the thunder of big-budget schlock.

Rob Weir

* Personal Note: I have seen the Lewis cottage in Halifax, though I confess not knowing much about Maud Lewis until this film. The cottage and the art gallery are among many reasons why you should visit Halifax if you have a chance.

** Biographical notes: Maud Lewis's biographer claims that Everett never loved Maud, and kept her around because he liked the money her paintings brought in. A burglar murdered him in 1979. Unlike the film, Maud was not obsessed with the daughter she lost and wasn't as content as portrayed.


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