Niall McArdle looks into the frames of Aisling Walsh’s Maudie.
What is the most important thing for a painter? After all the arguments about colours and symbolism and composition have ended, what’s left is what the artist has included in a painting and what has been left out. In other words, the borders of the canvas are perhaps the most important parts. I say perhaps because painting long ago abandoned representation, and the exact position of a splotch of colour on a canvas is arguably unimportant. In film, however, framing and composition still matter and are vital clues to the filmmaker’s intent.
It is heartening, therefore, to see a biopic of a painter that pays close attention to the frame, for frames were of paramount important to Maud Lewis, the Canadian folk artist, and the subject of Aisling Walsh’s superbly crafted, marvellously acted, moving Maudie. Living for all her life in a tiny fishing village in Nova Scotia, Maud Dowley suffers from severe rheumatoid arthritis from an early age, which makes her seemingly unfit for work or marriage. Limping, bent, shuffling Maud has a fierce will, however, and so when she sees an opportunity to work as a housekeeper and cook for Everett Lewis, a gruff local fish peddler, she seizes it.
Everett’s tiny shack is a dismal place, and Maud begins painting the walls to brighten it up, much to Everett’s anger. Then again, he is furious at her for almost every little thing and given to violent outbursts. Maud paints Christmas cards and helps Everett with his rounds (she’s better at keeping track of business than he is – one of the strong aspects of the script is it’s never explicit how illiterate Everett is). When one of his customers offers to buy one of Maud’s paintings, Everett’s resentment is clear, but five bucks is five bucks. Later she’ll become famous – another source of bitterness for a man who doesn’t much care for people tramping outside his house.
The two fall into a routine. He sells fish and does odd jobs, she keeps house and paints, and is happiest painting by the window because a window is “the whole world framed.” They share a bed only because the alternative is for her to sleep on the floor. Several weeks after moving in with him, they marry. Maudie is a love story with a moving narrative arc covering several decades, with a heartbreaking secret at its centre.
Maudie is an intimate, almost claustrophobic film. Many of the scenes are interior, yet it never feels stagey or a cheap television production that somehow wound up in cinema. Walsh frames her actors under low slanted ceilings and in small doorways (including one shot of Everett that seems a deliberate echo of John Ford’s ending of The Searchers). By the film’s end, there isn’t a surface in the Lewis house that isn’t painted with bright, colourful scenes.
There is much to admire in the film’s look and feel, but it is the performances that will stick with the viewer. As Maud, Sally Hawkins gives an outstanding physical performance matched by a quiet resolve and a somewhat mischievous sense of humour. She’s in almost every scene and it’s easy to see why there is already awards buzz for her performance: she doesn’t demand sympathy or take the role as an excuse for some damp-eyed Oscar baiting, yet she’s unforgettable.
Ethan Hawke brings intensity of a different sort to the taciturn Everett. The impoverished rural working-class male is a character that the cinema has all but forgotten or doesn’t know how to represent, but Hawke has captured something authentic here (even if his Maritimes accent roams a fair bit). He mumbles and grunts a lot. When he speaks, it’s in short declarative statements, mostly to complain. Physically, he retreats into himself. This is a performance worlds away from the Hawke we’re accustomed to seeing. Even his button eyes, usually so bright, have dimmed.
Maudie is a quiet triumph for Aisling Walsh, and for Irish cinema. The Irish-Canadian co-production was the gala presentation on the opening night of the Audi Dublin Film Festival, and when this fantastic film is on release in Irish cinemas, be sure to see it as it is undoubtedly one of the year’s best Irish films. Bring tissues.
Maudie screened on Thursday, 16th February 2017 at Savoy 1 as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival