Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly
Maud (Sally Hawkins) would certainly qualify as “the lowly” in director Aisling Walsh’s modest film biography of Nova Scotian folk artist Maud Lewis. Born with a form of arthritis that has twisted one of her legs and a foot and deformed her fingers, she is bereft of parents and in 1938 foisted by her brother Charles Dowley (Zachary Bennet) upon an aunt when he unilaterally sells their family home. The judgmental Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) scorns her as a worthless imposition. Maud seeks solace by slipping out at night to pay a visit to the village dance hall. There, though almost totally ignored, she can enjoy the music and the people dancing together.
While shopping at the village of Digby’s general store Maud overhears an illiterate fishmonger named Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) ask the storekeeper to write and post a note advertising for a live-in housekeeper. He is scarcely out the door when Maud rushes over and tears it down, and she too is out the door.
Hobbling out to Everett’s small roadside shack, she knocks on the door. Obviously neither of them has either hired or applied for a job before: the interview is almost painful to watch. The bent-backed Maud with her twisted foot is obviously not the kind of help Everett had in mind. He rejects her at first, but she is so desperate to escape from her overly protective Aunt Ida, that she moves in her things anyway and starts cleaning. Does the filthy place ever need it!
Thus begins the new life of this “lowly one.” Cranky Everett himself is not much higher in status than she. He is little more than a brute in tattered clothing, speaking to her only to criticize or complain. As she feeds the chickens, he tells her that for him she comes after himself, his dog, and the chickens. Prone to angry outbursts, he even hits her one day. There is no room in the tiny downstairs room, so she sleeps in his bed up in the loft. For a while they lie facing in opposite directions, so there is no touching or talking at night.
One day, Maud, seeing a gallon-can of left-over green paint on the table, dips her finger in it and paints the stem of a plant on the wall. Then several more, and finding half-empty cans of other colors, she paints blossoms at the top of the stems. Everett, upon returning home from selling fish, is not pleased, telling her that she had not asked his permission to paint on the wall. However, he does not demand their erasure, so over the days when she has a moment amidst her cleaning, cooking, and feeding the chickens, she paints flowers on all the wars and even the windows. She also paints on small cardboard and postcards pictures of birds, blooming flowers, deer, yoked oxen, wide-eyed cats, Everett’s Model-T, and landscapes.
No Rembarndt she, but still colorful enough to draw the attention of the New Yorker who comes up regularly to Digby for getaways from the city. Sandra (Kari Matchet) has been buying fish from Everett, and one day she barges into their house and spots the little paintings Maud has painted for her own amusement. The visitor asks to buy the cards. Her price of ten cents and then a quarter is ridiculously low, but Maud is delighted that she has created something valued by another. Soon she is painting discarded wood panels from some of the junk furniture that Everett brings home in his pushcart and chops into firewood. He says little about Maud’s paintings, other than to order her not to neglect her housework. However, he defensively replies to a shopkeeper who says that a five-year-old could have painted them, “Well a five-year-old did not paint these.”
Slowly Everett’s brown, shriveled soul begins to “green” (to use a term of Hildegard of Bingen) under Maud’s influence. We see this in a scene in which he pushes his handcart toward town. Hitherto Maud hobbled behind him, striving to keep up. This time she sits in the cart, facing forward, her feel dangling down. They are touching each other in bed now, and when she insists on marriage before sex, eventually they emerge from the chapel of the village orphanage where Everett was raised, now man and wife.
By now the walls, windows, and front door of the shack are cheerfully decorated, and Maud each day places a “Paintings for Sale” sign in front. She is getting the princely sum of $5 for a painting now, which is a welcome addition to Everett’s fishmonger income. A journalist and then a TV crew had come to interview her, so word of her child-like works has reached thousands of people. She is pleased that President Nixon has ordered a couple, though she insists on payment first before shipping them.
The team of Irish director Aisling Walsh and Canadian scriptwriter Sherry White, joined by such a talented cast, have given us a film largely devoid of cheap sentiment—no trace of the “disease of the week” genre, the film being half over before we learn what is Maud’s physical affliction. Actress Sally Hawkins pulls off a Daniel Day Lewis performance (as in My Left Foot) as an arthritic-plagued woman by twisting one of her feet and limping along the road that leads from her tiny shack into town. We admire her perseverance and ability to see beauty amidst such privation. In one scene, she points to their window and says, “I love a window. The whole of life already framed., right there.” Late in the film Maud visits her aunt, who confesses to her, “You’re the only one in our family who ended up happy.” Maybe this is because she was the only one who saw art as the window for seeing beauty that abounds if we but look for it.
Though suffering pain throughout her life and eventually dying of pneumonia, she has left at least two hundred of her own little windows through which we can see the world as lovely place to be in. The little house she so gayly decorated has been restored and, along with 55 of her paintings, is on display in the Scotiabank Maud Lewis Gallery at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
All pictures courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing.
Note: Art lovers might want to take a look at the book by Lance Woolaver Maud Lewis: The Heart on the Door that paints a much darker picture of the artist and her husband.
This review with a set of questions will be in the Aug. 2017 issue of VP.