Sally Hawkins lifts her complex role with a graceful energy, helped by Maudie's visual approach, which is sometimes delicately impressionistic and sometimes more artisanal.
"Slim pickins applied for the job." Everett (Ethan Hawke) is disappointed. A fishmonger in Nova Scotia, he's put up an advertisement in search of a live-in housecleaner. Times are hard during the '30s, and as he insists more than once, Everett doesn't plan to pay much or change his routine. The one person who does apply is Maud (Sally Hawkins), looking to support herself for the first time, after her brother Charlie (Zachary Bennett) sold their house without consulting her. Neither Everett nor Maud can imagine the future they're about to share.
As Maudie begins, that future looks bleak, but Maud is hardly "slim pickins". She gets the news of her displacement when Charlie comes to visit Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose), where he's moved Maud, again, without consulting her. "She has to understand," he grumps, "This is her home now." He and Ida stand inside her modest kitchen, while Maud waits on the porch outside, her brow furrowed as she smokes a cigarette. Arthritic since she was a teenager, she's used to being called a "cripple" and dismissed as if she was a child.
But even in this early scene, her resilience is visible: filmed through the window, Maud looks back over her shoulder, her face barely visible through the greying glass, listening for an instant before she heads back inside to confront Charlie and Ida. On learning her fate has been decided for her, she returns to what she was doing before Charlie's visit. "I'm gonna do some painting," she says.
"Some painting" turns out to be Maud's salvation and, eventually, her vocation. Based on the life of Maud Lewis, whose "naïve art" features brightly colored images of animals and flowers, people, the film makes a case that as Maud emerges as an artist with a national reputation, she also develops her independent voice and helps the brutish Everett to realize his own nuance and capacity for affection.
All this good work is a heavy load for Maud the movie character. Hawkins carries it with a graceful energy, helped by Maudie's visual approach, sometimes delicately impressionistic and sometimes more artisanal. For the latter, the camera is close on Maud's paintings as she works, showing the tips of her bushes and the canvas or window pane where she applies her strokes. These images show her face close to her work, her body hunched over. These shots help you imagine her focus, or at least appreciate her labor and dedication.
As she scrubs Everett's wood floor or does he best to corral a chicken, the camera stays low, looking up at her face as she sorts out how to get the job done. For other scenes, the camera pulls out to locate a tiny Maud in wide landscapes, snowy or summertime, showing long stretches of unpaved road or green hills sloping toward the shore.
Images of Everett often see him fishing or delivering fish, or at the orphanage where he grew up, now working as a handyman. These scenes are grey and the frames are tight. You can understand how Maud breaks up his horizon, alters his rhythm. At home, he worries out loud when she starts trying to discipline his dogs. "Let me tell you how it is around here," he announces, the camera looking up at his full figure as she's pushed toward the edge of the frame, "Me, them dogs, them chickens, then you." His callousness takes various forms, sometimes physical, always emotional, but even as the film sets him in opposition to Maud, she tends not to play that role, either as victim or as adversary.
Covering 35 years of this complicated relationship, the movie called Maudie focuses on Maud, reinforcing her strength and stubbornness, her vulnerability and generosity. When one of Everett's customers, Sandra (Kari Matchett), comes by their one-room home to settle a deal he hasn't quite met, she's impressed immediately with Maud's postcards ("Say, did you paint that happy little chicken?"), and offers to buy a few. As convenient as this bit of plot might be, it's a turning point in Maud's trajectory to at least a modicum of independence, and also Everett's, to a sort of tenderness.
Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) and Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins) in Maudie (2016)
Maud's relationship with Sandra also sparks the film with a capacity for self-reflection and mutual support between two women. Sandra is a visitor from New York City, cultured and wealthy enough to have a vacation home in Nova Scotia. When she affirms Maud's art as worthy of commendation and payment, Maud's thinking about herself shifts. Not only is Sandra a patron, but she's also a friend and, as much as Maud talks to anyone, a confidante. When Maud briefly leaves Everett, she shows up on Sandra's doorstep, in a scene that echoes the one where Sandra first appears on Maud's doorstep. Sandra doesn't ask what's happened, only brings her inside.
A scene or two later, Sandra asks Maud to teach her to paint. The women lean toward one another over Sandra's breakfast table, the window light gently playing on their faces. Maud demurs, suggesting that she's not trained or skilled and cannot pass on what she does. "I don't go nowhere," she says, "I paint from memory, I suppose made my designs up." It's a remarkable phrasing, partly because we have no access to her memories, so we can only guess what's remembered or made up, but also partly because she here describes a process of self-expression and self-construction through art, an art that mostly is left to speak for itself. "I've known you four years Maud," smiles Sandra, "And I'm still trying to figure out what makes you tick."
The film takes up Maud's next effort to self-explain as a kind of mantra, repeating it later. "I love a window," Maud says, reminding you of the several times you see her through windows during the film. "A bird whizzing by, a bumblebee, it's always different. The whole of life," she adds, "The whole of life already framed right there." Here you might see, for a moment, what she sees, that frames needn't be understood as limits, and likewise, limits can also be opportunities to see the world in another way. The women sit together, confident and compassionate, framed by the window, become art in a film about how art might exist in an unlikely place. And for this moment, you see how they might be the world, right there.