Friday, July 14, 2017

Maudie: Portrait of an unlikely artist

Maudie (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and brief sexuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.14.17

Film, despite the potential of its myriad elements, rarely delivers the intensity of a powerful stage performance.

Everett (Ethan Hawke) can't understand why Maudie (Sally Hawkins) puts so much
painstaking — and painful — effort into her delicate watercolor paintings. As far as he's
concerned, they only interfere with her primary purpose: to feed him on time.
There’s something electrifying about being in the presence of a truly charismatic actor: one who slides wholly into a role with an authoritative snap that crushes any thought of looking elsewhere. Every move, gesture and sentence are riveting; we’re simply spellbound.

You don’t very often get that from a film performance.

Here’s one.

Sally Hawkins’ title role in Maudie is the stuff of cinematic legend: not merely a role that should bring her an Academy Award, but one destined to be remembered for a long, long time. It’s a delicately crafted, sensitively delivered characterization that transcends the term “acting,” and becomes something truly wondrous.

That said, this Canadian/Irish co-production doesn’t make it easy on Stateside viewers unfamiliar with Maud Lewis, a humble 20th century Nova Scotia woman who — unexpectedly, astonishingly — became one of Canada’s most famous folk artists. Director Aisling Walsh and scripter Sherry White dump us — without title credits, preamble or any sort of back-story — into the drab, day-to-day frustration of Maudie’s thirtysomething routine.

It’s the mid-1930s. Maudie lives with her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) in the tiny community of Digby: a “kept” existence arranged by her condescending brother Charles (Zachary Bennett), her only sibling. He calls her “Sister,” unwilling to grant her even the small dignity of her own name. Both their parents are dead; Charles arrives one morning to inform Maudie that he has sold the family home — without bothering to consult her — to settle outstanding debts.

He dumps her meager belongings, including a set of paintbrushes, and departs. Hastily.

He’s ashamed and embarrassed by her, and believes that she cannot care for herself. Maudie suffers the debilitating after-effects of childhood rheumatoid arthritis, which has left her body wracked with pain and twisted at odd angles.

Hawkins’ depiction of this is both breathtaking and agonizing. She always stands tilted, eternally shuddering, both feet never pressed flat on a floor at the same time. She’s distressingly thin, her matchstick legs plunked into shoes several sizes too large; it feels like she’d blow over in a stiff breeze.

(I’ve no idea how Hawkins achieved this emaciated look. It’s beyond persuasive.)

Her face is pinched; her hands are gnarled, her fingers extended at odd angles, fluttering like moths. Her head, bobbing like a quail, tilts up from beneath hunched shoulders and back. Even talking seems a struggle, her terse comments, responses and acknowledgments barely a whisper. She talks to herself in a stream-of-consciousness manner, giving voice to random thoughts.

But everything else is offset by her eyes — which sparkle — and her quick, beaming smiles. She’s not quick-witted, per se, likely having enjoyed little formal education ... but she is alert and spunky. One imagines that she doesn’t miss much.

She attends a local dance one evening, forlornly nursing a beer in a corner, ignored by everybody. We ache for her loneliness and isolation, Hawkins’ face a blend of stubborn determination — after all, she worked up the courage to show up — and misery.

It’s subsequently ironic that the woman whose brother has consigned to the care of a stern aunt, answers a hand-printed request for a housekeeper, displayed at the town’s lone general store. The notice is posted by Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), a taciturn, 40-year-old misanthrope who ekes out a marginal living as a fish seller.

He’s tall, hulking and shabby, as damaged — in his own way — as Maudie: emotionally stunted, quick-tempered and mistrustful. He lives in a 10-by-12-foot house in Marshaltown, a few miles from Digby. The place has neither electricity nor running water; a bed loft hovers above the single room. But he owns the ramshackle house: It’s his. He’s proudly self-sufficient, working long, grueling hours, and he wants a woman to clean the place and fix his meals.

Maudie takes the job, knowing not the slightest thing about cooking or cleaning. To her, this is an opportunity for escape, to establish her own sense of worth. Despite the fact that Everett, not knowing any better, treats her abominably.

“There’s me,” he thunders, at one points, “and there’s the dogs, and the chickens. And then there’s you.” And he means it.

His barrage of casual cruelty, both verbal and physical, is heartbreaking; we gasp in anguish. Walsh’s tone and approach are unrelentingly grim; her film is profoundly difficult to watch and endure. We’re talking bleakness and despair on par with 1980’s Elephant Man.

And yet ... and yet...

Everett isn’t evil; he simply doesn’t know any better. But he learns from Maudie’s persistence, patience and forbearance (although, God knows, it feels like this transition takes forever). The dynamic shifts over time, and if he initially grants her only the rough consideration he’d show for one of his dogs, this eventually blossoms into something more.

When, at long last, she has legitimate cause to observe, “We’re like a pair of odd socks,” we smile with her.

Along the way, Maudie has been covering the shack’s walls — and odd bits of wood and cardboard — with painted flowers, birds, cats and outdoor scenes. These are noticed by Sandra (Kari Matchett, in a radiantly warm performance), a transplanted New York society woman who visits one day, to complain that Everett neglected her most recent fish order. Sandra compliments Maudie’s craft; she buys small pieces and soon commissions an original work, for a breathtaking $5.

White’s script is frequently clumsy with transitions; Maudie’s random wall art blossoms into greetings cards with jarring abruptness. (In point of fact, Maudie’s mother taught her, years earlier, to make watercolor Christmas cards: a rather important detail that White doesn’t bother to share.)

When not painting or keeping house, Maudie accompanies Everett on his rounds, her cards gaining notice and eventually being sold in the local general store.

Although not in Hawkins’ acting stratosphere, Hawke holds his own; his take on Everett is thoroughly convincing. He often pauses before responding, as if assembling every individual word in sequence, before trusting himself with a finished sentence. He clearly doesn’t know what to make of Maudie, who wildly defies his few expectations, even standing up to his tantrums.

Hawke’s abrupt flashes of irritation and anger are flat-out scary, and this isn’t the sort of sugar-coated narrative that turns Everett into a sweet-natured softie in time for the third act. Walsh guides Hawke into a much subtler transition that remains prickly throughout, with grudgingly considerate acts emerging more in deed than word.

A telling page is turned when, instead of forcing Maudie to hobble alongside, as he pushes his fish cart along the miles of barren road that separate his customers, he allows her to sit on the cart.

Although this relationship dynamic is wholly credible, one can’t help wondering why White’s depiction of Everett is so unrelentingly harsh. It feels unfair and needlessly manipulative; brief research suggests that it’s also untrue. This film depicts Everett as being initially disinterested in, and eventually threatened by, Maudie’s artistic talent; we’re led to believe that she’s “discovered” solely through her budding friendship with Sandra, as a sort of unspoken patron.

This conflicts with a historical record that suggests Everett was a strongly encouraging force in her life. Apparently that didn’t suit White’s own artistic vision.

The film also is sloppy with respect to the passage of time. The story takes us from Maudie’s entry into Everett’s life, to her death ... in July 1970. But there’s no sense that we’ve progressed any further than, say, the mid-1950s (although I grant that social advances would have been delayed in so isolated a setting). At most, it feels like we’ve spent 10 or 15 years with these characters: certainly not 35!

This could be deliberate — Walsh’s attempt to present Maudie’s life as a series of snapshots, akin to her paintings — but it still feels awkward and unsatisfying.

The technical credits are unadorned but effective. Cinematographer Guy Godfree captures both the cramped confines of the house — we sense the dust that must have settled on everything, at all times — and the desolate, unforgiving landscape that surrounds this home. He favors a long shot that depicts Maudie’s slow, painful progress each time she walks along what looks like a levee road to Digby.

The spare soundtrack comes from Michael Timmins, co-founder of Canada’s beloved blues/alt country/folk rock band Cowboy Junkies. His delicate underscore is almost entirely solo guitar, precisely applied to enhance moments both tender and tragic.

The film concludes with a brief archival clip of the actual Maudie and Everett (the latter beaming cheerfully in a manner that Hawke never comes close to suggesting). The closing credits unspool to Irish singer/songwriter Lisa Hannigan’s “Little Bird”: a tender coda to a impressive drama with strong echoes of 1989’s “My Left Foot.”

Narrative flaws notwithstanding, Hawkins — so memorable in Made in Dagenham and Blue Jasmine — makes Maudie both compelling and unforgettable.

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