Catching a glint of joy in the troubled life of storied Nova Scotian folk painter Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins), Maudie opens as she arduously fights against her arthritic body to apply a deliberate brush stroke to one of the few unpainted corners of a wall. Rewinding several years, the film re-centers on the semi-blissful final years of her otherwise difficult life. Because of her crippling arthritis and wild spirit, Maud is treated with contempt by her brother, Charles (Zachary Bennett), and their aunt, Ida (Gabrielle Rose). Yearning to escape their control, she moves into the hovel of a misanthropic fishmonger, Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), as his housemaid, leading these perpetual outsiders into a loving, if unorthodox, relationship. Although Maud spends more time painting the home’s walls than obeying the cantankerous Everett, their pasts give them a well of mutual understanding. This fortunate arrangement and the chance patronage of an urbane New Yorker, Sandra (Kari Matchett), turn her hobby into continent-spanning fame.
Almost instantly, it’s clear that Sherry White’s screenplay will hit every beat expectedly on cue: Maude and Everett’s initially coarse introduction, their offbeat romancing, the peaks and valleys of her career, and the personal struggles that nearly tear them apart until they bounce back and live their days out in pleasant dignity. While there are thankfully no grand speeches about Maud overcoming adversity, the whole affair thinly coasts on worn-out emotional cues and comes off predictably neat and feel-good. Maud couldn’t paint a hurricane that would blow this overburdened narrative off course.
Few people filter in and out of the world of Maud and Everett’s dusty shack. It’s a setup that hinges Maudie’s emotional center on the performances. Without making Maud a tragic figure or a symbol for the power of positive thinking, Hawkins gives the woman an indefectible thrust of optimism in the face of emotional hardship she knows she’ll never slough off. Hawkins’s wide smile and warbling but vibrant voice impart an unexpected vitality to Maud’s tiny frame, imbuing the character with a soul-deep strength of resolve.
Hawke, though, is less convincing. Sometimes it’s because the actor has to navigate some very bad writing, as in Everett and Maud’s meet-cute, wherein the 40-year-old Everett, an otherwise competent man, throws a fit because he doesn’t remember the words “cleaning tool.” But mostly it’s a matter of poor casting, as Hawke’s perennially sympathetic face initially feels mismatched to Everett’s bluntly cranky demeanor and the actor overcompensates by grunting his way through the role. Hawke is unsurprisingly more relaxed when his gruff day laborer inevitably warms up and falls in love with the free-spirited Maud, but prior to that mid-script occurrence, he looks like a clueless bourgeois teen on his first day at the construction site.
Maud’s colorful pastorals are charming and lively interpretations of the gorgeous Eastern Canadian landscape that’s central to Maudie. With them, Maud not only recreates scenic beauty, but also finds a therapeutic outlet for the extensive traumas of her youth. When she’s alone with her works, the humble optimism at the heart of their creation peeks out from an otherwise flat-footed story. Hawkins translates Maud’s distillation of the scenes outside her window with a sense of immediacy. It does Maud’s quiet passion some justice but can’t hold up a portrait that seems faded by comparison.