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by Jay Seaver

"More about artist than art, though both are deceptively simple."
4 stars

It's tough to make movies about people like Maud and Everett Lewis. As presented here, they're kind of slow, and even though they're not actually stupid, it takes a while to get to know them well enough for that to be clear (and they're never actually shrewd like you might like them to be for balance). It's easy to feel like the filmmakers and audience are exploiting them in the same way that one gets an itch that they might have been exploited in real life.

But stick around for a film that lets everybody settle in, and the viewer and the characters become part of the same community, and they start to make a little more sense. They've both been abandoned and hurt in ways that would lead many to walling themselves off, but they don't really know how to do that and recognize that they aren't entirely capable of being self-sufficient anyway, so it makes sense they find each other. They don't fall in love, but not in the way that it's an event with a clear moments of inspiration, but get there over time. Director Aisling Walsh and writer Sherry White let the audience suss that out by showing how images that repeat within different montages go from showing necessity to joy, or by inserting the occasional winter scene to make sure the audience realizes that this isn't happening over a summer.

It could, certainly; though it took many a year to make the characters who they are as things start: Maud Dowley (Sally Hawkins) is a spinster living with her aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) at the behest of her brother (Zachary Bennett); it's a responsibility neither aunt nor brother particularly want, but Maud has had troublesome arthritis practically since birth on top of just not fitting in with other people, leading them to feel she can't take care of herself. Still, she's at the general store when Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) posts a notice looking for a housekeeper, and even though he's a curmudgeon at best and lives in a fairly small, isolated shack, that sounds a bit like freedom to Maud and she takes the job. Once the accumulated mess is cleaned up, Maud's got a little more time on her hands, so she pulls out her paints and starts in on the walls, spare pieces of wood, and small cards. When she scrawls a bill for Everett's fish delivery for summer resident Sandra (Kari Matchett) on the back of one of those cards, the New York native is impressed and asks for more.

Their stories advance inches and not a lot more, eventually winding down in relatively non-dramatic fashion, and that's part of what gives this small story its comfort and warmth. Though the characters age and the world around them moves forward, they are always close to their core selves, even when their relationship isn't completely stable. The filmmakers do a good job of showing that contrast and how their environment enables Maud and Everett to stay who they are - though Everett's shack is a constant, what audiences see when they venture into town is always pleasant-looking small-town Nova Scotia; it doesn't get citified around them and they still fit the same niche. The film shows but doesn't do much to explain Maud's art, just letting it be her work rather than talking about folk art or outsider art or something an expert explains (it would be easy to make Sandra explicitly someone with a connection to the art world, but by having her just be someone who likes Maud's paintings as far as the film is concerned, the filmmakers let it reflect her and nothing else). There's a very specific sort of grounding, even if the characters aren't necessarily easy to know.

The cast makes it work even when that's the case. Sally Hawkins is predictably great as Maude, capturing how awkwardly she moves and basically lives, never really toning it down - she gets more stooped and arthritic as time passes - but she becomes more familiar as things go on. It's a performance that looks a bit exaggerated toward the beginning, in part because Maud is not the sort of person one is used to seeing as a film's lead, but there's a quiet nuance to how she connects it to the artwork - a look or a line reading off and she seems desperate rather than determined, and her cheerful drawings become the world she would escape to rather than the one she sees. There's a certain special joy in the moments when she sees things clearly, and crises of self-confidence seem to spiral as the reasons for that uncertainty become more intense. Ethan Hawke does something similar with Everett in terms of having him stumble for the proper responses, and he never really backs off being bullying and angry, so what's impressive is the degree to which one realizes he has become more toward the end. He's a bit miscast, perhaps, in that he never becomes the spindly old man we see in archive footage just before the end credits, but portraying him as the blunt workingman who complements Maud's gentler temperament as something that is visually truthful if not completely accurate.

Once the film settles in, it's charming in many ways. and a day to think about it brings a few details to the fore that make it a bit more impressive. "Maudie" can be tough to get into, but does in fact reward one's patience.

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originally posted: 07/12/17 08:47:49
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8/29/17 G Sally Hawkins is a treasure 4 stars
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  16-Jun-2017 (PG-13)

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