Who’s Maudie?” Well I’ll tell you.
The film speaks from reality, relating the unlikely romance between Maud Dowley (Sally Hawkins), a folk artist who blossoms in later life, and the curmudgeonly recluse, Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke).
Everett has engaged the fragile yet determined woman as his housekeeper, but the bright-eyed Maudie, afflicted with crippled hands, yearns to be independent, to live away from her protective family and passionate to create art.
They are a mismatched pair so Everett is stunned at the realization he’s unexpectedly falling in love. The screen play documents Everett’s efforts to protect himself from being hurt, along with Maudie’s deep abiding love for this difficult man and her surprising rise to fame as a folk painter.
Everett is a man who owes nothing to anyone. Tall, skinny and shabby, abandoned by his parents at a very young age, he has nevertheless managed to become a proud and self-sufficient man, largely by collecting scraps and peddling fish. He lives in a 10 x12 foot house that has neither running water nor electricity, but at least it’s all his. Everett is his own boss and has everything he needs, except maybe a woman to clean the house and cook his meals.
The only response to his ad for a live-in housekeeper is from a strange looking woman-short, hunched over, with gnarled up hands and two huge bright brown eyes. Everett resists at first, but instinctivey hires Maud, though he’s suspicious of her. She talks too much, has too many opinions. She’s a terrible housekeeper and keeps talking marriage whenever he tries to have sex. She spends most of her time painting doodles on cardboard and the walls of his house. Everett realizes he hardly got what he bargained for. At least, the little cards that Maud paints begin to sell, so she can start pulling her weight around the house.
But what’s worse, Everett is starting to need Maud. When she isn’t near him, his life is dull and grey. As years pass and Maudie becomes a recognized folk artist, Everett has more difficulty hiding from his feelings. His fears of abandonment rise to the surface and become intolerable whenever he feels at risk of losing her. He has to decide whether he’ll shut down and protect himself from ever being hurt, or if he will take the risk and let love into his life, even if it means his heart will break for doing it. Without love, there is no purpose.
Maudie exemplified the simple life. But simple doesn’t mean dull. The simplicity of her paintings, brushed initially with scrounged paint from local fishermen onto ubiquitous green boards and post cards, continue to evoke feelings of innocence, of child-like exuberance as enduring as the spring times she loved to paint. And today she still captures audiences intrigued by everyday scenes as diverse as hard-working oxen and whimsical butterflies.
Maud Dowley Lewis was born in 1903 in a small South Ohio community. Her father Jack was a moderately prosperous craftsman, making harnesses and serving as a blacksmith. Agnes, her mother, favored artistic pursuits including painting, folk carving and music. Born disfigured with sloped shoulders and her chin resting on her chest, Maud led a confined but happy home life after she quit school at 14, perhaps in part to escape the mocking of her peers. “What is life without love or friendship?” she once confided to a friend.
Her mother taught her to play the piano before juvenile rheumatoid arthritis crippled her hands. Physical deformity may have been her lot, but even more tragic was the loss of both her parents within two years. Maud then came into the care of an aunt in Digby, Nova Scotia, thereby forging a Canadian connection to her life. There she would later answer a newspaper ad that would determine the course her life would follow. It was placed by Everett Lewis looking for a housekeeper. She married him in 1938 at the age of thirty-four and would never travel more than an hour’s drive from her birthplace. “I ain’t much for traveling anyway,” she said later, “as long as I have a brush in my hand and a window in front of me, I’m all right.” Maud’s comfort was also enhanced by cigarettes. Although short in stature with hands gnarled by arthritis as the years passed, she stood tall when applying the brush.
Everett Lewis, a stingy, parsimonious but certainly hard-working man, kept house and made meals allowing Maud to spend most of her time delving into her world of wonder and creating fanciful works of art. Maud gathered images from her happy childhood and limited excursions in a Model T with Everett to paint cheerful images on dust pans, scallop shells and even on her house. They would settle into a routine where Everett enjoyed peddling and haggling over Maud’s paintings.
The happiness she painted first attracted neighbours, then tourists and eventually international attention, even the Nixon White House. It started with a Toronto Star Weekly newspaper article and then a 1965 CBC-TV program.
Today, her work unequivocally demands status as “important art” in numerous fine-art collections around the world. Much like her American counterpart, Grandma Moses, Maud was uniquely creative, specialized in painting everyday rural life, loved animals and appreciated the beauty of nature.
Her life passed in 1970.
This film, a tribute to her legacy, engenders a connection to the viewer from this charming woman. Sally Hawkins plays the title character with quiet reserve and a solid sense of optimism.
You won’t see “Maudie” on major bijou screens, but in the intimacy of art house theatres, its a comforting experience.