Biographical films, almost by definition, fudge with reality. And it’s easy enough to understand why. Most of life is, let’s be honest, boring. Who really wants to see, say, Winston Churchill slurping down a bowl of soup as the residue stains his shirtfront? Wouldn’t we far rather see Churchill standing on the cliffs of Dover, shaking his fist at the German troops threatening British soldiers stranded on the beach at Dunkirk?
The fact is, though, mundane moments are far more prevalent in real life than the melodramatic ones. Which is one of the things I most appreciate about “Maudie,” Irish filmmaker Aisling Walsh’s look at the life of folk artist Maud Lewis. Based on a screenplay by Canadian screenwriter Sherry White, “Maudie” manages to navigate a delicate balance between a sense of hope and the harsh reality likely experienced by Lewis, who died in 1970 at the relatively tender age of 67.
I say “likely” because, as Charlie Rich sang, no one really knows what goes on behind closed doors. What Walsh portrays in her film is that Lewis – born Maud Dowley – was afflicted with a body, twisted and shrunken by juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Cared for as a girl by her parents, Dowley was basically cheated, upon their deaths, by her brother of any inheritance. Worse, he handed her over to their less-than-sympathetic aunt for caretaking.
Wanting a life of her own, Dowley answered the ad of an itinerant fish peddler named Everett Lewis, a gruff loner who lived in a small, two-room house. “Maud” the movie consists of the slow, at times tenuous and seldom comfortable, coming together of these two damaged people.
More to the point, it explores the development of Lewis’ lone means of escape: painting. Beginning with the house itself, then with cards and portraits rendered on planks of wood, Lewis began to attract attention. And over the years, as her reputation grew, her art became the main means of support for her and her husband.
The reality of their life, as documented by biographer Lance Woolaver, was hardly a fairy tale. And while Walsh’s film doesn’t deny that, it does smooth out most of the story’s harder edges. And like all bio-pics, it invents plot points for dramatic effect.
Still, what Walsh gives us in the end is about as close to reality as we might want, outside of straight documentary. Her film progresses at a patient pace, setting the scene with numerous picturesque shots of the stark Canadian coastline (though, it turns out, with Newfoundland standing in for Nova Scotia).
Most of all, Walsh lets the British actress Sally Hawkins imbue Lewis’ character with both an elfin sense of humor and a deep-seated, if understated, spine of iron – something that explains how anyone could survive, much less thrive, in such a situation.
It is the supremely talented Hawkins, working opposite the adequate Ethan Hawke as Everett, who ultimately makes “Maudie” into a work of cinematic art – one that may not capture life exactly as it is but as we might choose to watch it unfold.