Darleen dragged me off to see a movie I hadn’t heard about, nor did I particularly want to see it when she tried to explain what it was about. But it was clearly something that was important to her and—let’s face it—there aren’t all that many movies even made these days for people over forty inches in height, so we went to see Maudie.
Part of the reason I wasn’t particularly wild with desire to see it was that Darleen made the mistake of telling me about a review she had read in The New York Times. I compounded her mistake by actually paying attention and imaging, erroneously, the Times might have something intelligent to say. After we saw Maudie, I was so stunned by the complete disconnect between the movie and the review that I took the time to read of bunch of reviews in some other major papers and magazines, and before I give you my own reaction to the movie, let me fill you in on what I read so that you too, gentle reader, will never trust anyone or anything other than your own opinion. That includes me.
A quick synopsis of what I read in various mainstream publications:
The opening is so boring and bleak that the only reason to bother sitting through it is the performances of Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke;
The opening is the best part of the movie, which is only redeemed after that by the performances of Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke;
The director (Aisling Walsh) and writer (Sherry White) wisely don’t adhere to the reality of Maud Lewis’ life;
The director (Aisling Walsh) and writer (Sherry White) might have created a better movie by sticking closer to the truth of Maud Lewis’ life instead of going for commercial success;
The directing is a masterpiece of subtle understatement, wisely staying out of the way and not trying to impose theatrical conventions on the story;
The directing is uninspired and vacillates between the irreconcilable extremes of Maud Lewis’ life;
The score was hauntingly beautiful and understated;
The score was pushy and inappropriate.
I have used my own words here, obviously, but essentially stuck to the essence of what was written.
And then there were the snarky, Snidely Whiplash comments within the reviews, as if each critic had his or her own personal animosities they wanted to air, the most egregious one dismissing Kari Matchett’s lovely turn as the vacationing New Yorker who basically discovered Maud Lewis as “Cate Blanchette doing Katherine Hepburn.”
Yet, to be fair, all these critics grudgingly praised the film and especially the performances of Hawkins and Hawke.
For my part, I was absolutely blown away by everything to do with Maudie.
For those of you who don’t know who Maud Lewis was (I didn’t), she was essentially a Canadian Grandma Moses, an untrained folk artist, whose cheerful and colorful depictions of rural life in Nova Scotia caught the attention of the world.
That’s the sanitized version. It’s true, but as with all human affairs, the truth was rather more difficult: a life that was mostly very grim, very hard, and very unforgiving. Whatever the reality was or was not is unimportant here. This is a movie and should be judged solely on its merits as a movie, and on that basis, it knocks the ball right out of the park.
Everything starts with the script. Written by Sherry White, a Canadian actress and writer I had never heard of, the script is as spare as it should be, considering she is writing about a shy and reticent lady married to an almost non-verbal man, but within that framework Ms. White manages to balance beauty and brutality, laughter and tears, the physical fragility of her heroine and the indomitable resilience of her spirit. There are lovely touches of humor and hope in the bleakness of these two people’s extremely circumscribed lives, but I confess I had to take my glasses off and wipe them more than once.
Directed by another lady I had never heard of, Aisling Walsh, an Irish director who managed to balance the widely disparate elements of the story with remarkable grace, and who had the sensitivity to allow two immensely gifted actors to bring their characters to life, even when that life sometimes took them off-script. Ms. Walsh also did an exquisite job of capturing the harsh beauty of the environment that inspired Maud Lewis, a job that must have been exceptionally difficult: filming in cold weather is fraught with challenges, from fogged-up lenses to frozen batteries that can no longer power the cameras, to freezing cast and crew members. And much of the film takes place in different seasons, something that must have brought its own challenges. Kudos to her.
And then the performances! Oh, my. There isn’t a false note or bad lick from anyone anywhere in the film, but it is Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins who simply took my breath away. Actors choose projects for many varied reasons, but the challenges inherent in any given role are the primary lures for actors who have confidence in their own abilities. How do you find and convey the wisdom and humor in a tiny, fragile, deformed, possibly limited lady whose only means of real expression was through her art? Sally Hawkins does it.
If you like the kinds of action/adventure movies that depend so heavily on stunts and special effects, Maudie is almost certainly not going to be your cup of tea. But if you are interested in your fellow man, if the hidden bits and pieces of the human psyche that we know are there in all of us but that we so rarely see, if William Blake’s world in a grain of sand and Heaven in a wildflower, if those things appeal to you more than gun fights and car chases, you will love this movie. No matter what conflicting nonsense the damned critics spout.