The woman artist is almost always the outsider artist, and Maud Lewis is no different. A painter, Lewis grew up in Nova Scotia and had no formal training apart from painting postcards with her mother when she was young. Her hands, shoulders, and neck were crumpled by juvenile rheumatoid arthritis from childhood. Many refer to Lewis as a folk artist, and the new film Maudie, directed by Ainsling Walsh, does little to challenge this notion. Starring an endearing yet conniving Sally Hawkins as Maudie and Ethan Hawke as her husband, Everett Lewis, Maudie portrays an artist’s difficult life within what has been marketed as an unconventional romantic comedy.
Aisling Walsh, a female Irish director, came on board after a male director who had first taken on the project abandoned it. Walsh has noted that it is significant for a woman director to have made the film, if only because it was a woman director who felt the story important enough to finish. Shot in Newfoundland, the film shows the stark isolation of the northern landscape and its harsh climate. Several scenes depict the Lewises’ tiny house walled in by feet of snow.
The film opens with a shot of Hawkins’s hands twisted around a paintbrush and a cigarette, painting flower stems, and follows these hands to the artist’s shaking last days. Hawkins learned to paint for the role and she paints in many scenes. Brightly colored trees, flowers, birds, people, and forest creatures meander across the walls, doors, windows, furniture, and appliances of the one room shack she moves into with Lewis. For the house, Walsh used as her model Maud and Everett Lewis’s actual home, which has been restored and displayed at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Maud’s story begins in the late 1930s when she leaves her unsupportive family behind, believing that she can take care of herself, and finds her way to Everett, a forty-year-old single man looking for a live-in housekeeper. Maud takes the job and moves in, marries Everett, and eventually spends her days painting. This is how the film tells the story. A victim of circumstances, Maud lives in poverty and sells her paintings for $5, gaining fame and renown only at the end of her life. The film reveals that the child she had out of wedlock before meeting Everett was not stillborn, as she was told, but is alive and well and has a family of her own down the road. Poor, resilient Maud, she withstands it all with a sly grin.
While I enjoyed this portrayal onscreen, I was left with so many more questions: how accurate is Hawke’s portrayal of Everett Lewis, who hits Maud in the face in front of a neighbor early in their relationship? Why did they never leave the tiny house, even after Maud’s paintings began to bring in a profit? Were this home and this relationship Maud’s only options? What is hiding behind the impish “folksiness” of the so-called folk artist? Is “folk” another word for “poor”?
According to people who knew Maud, Everett was abusive and demanding. While Hawke’s Everett supports Maud’s artwork, albeit with chagrin, in life Everett forbade Maud from seeing neighbors and required her to make two paintings a day, despite her physical limitations. Where Hawke plays what one reviewer called “a gruff husband,” the real Everett was far more sinister. He kept his wife’s profits buried in the yard and in the floorboards, and gave her no access to any of it. He died with $22,000 in cash from her paintings, a fact that doesn’t make it into the timeline of the film.
Sally Hawkins resists the character that this film writes for her—the happy-go-lucky charmer who rises angelically above her circumstances—and instead plays a fiercely defiant artist devoted to her craft and to her freedom. However, the film clearly casts her character as more victim than villain, and in the process it denies some of Maud’s agency and alters major facts. A huge portion of Woolaver’s biography tells the story of Maud’s daughter, Catherine, whom she put up for adoption after her birth. When Catherine tried to find Maud as an adult, Maud refused to acknowledge her.
Perhaps the screenwriter feared that the accurate Maud, the woman who gave up a child, would be more difficult for some audiences to love. Even without a clearly malicious Everett on screen, Hawkins shows through the tiniest acts—painting trees on the wall after he hits her, escaping to a local patron’s house when she is afraid, refusing to make dinner—how a woman can wrest control of her life through art.