The movie “Maudie,” a fact-based drama about the late Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis and her strange relationship with her husband, is a charming tale — or as charming as a tale can be that involves a person as nearly unlovable as Everett Lewis. As portrayed by Ethan Hawke, Everett makes the word “curmudgeon” seem wholly inadequate to describe his (initially) repellent nature. Marrying Maud in 1938 — several weeks after hiring her as his live-in housekeeper for 25 cents a week — this boorish, barely verbal fish-peddler expects his wife to know, and to keep, her place: As he puts it, oh so romantically, that place comes right after him, his two dogs and his chickens.
Maud, on the other hand, is a pure delight, supplying nearly all of this unprepossessing film biography’s quiet pleasures, many of which come every time actress Sally Hawkins, as the quirky, chain-smoking, severely arthritic title character, opens up her mouth to let out one of Maud’s signature, adorable little giggles.
The question of what she has to laugh about makes this film something of a mystery, as well as a most unorthodox love story. The life of Maud Lewis, nee Dowley, was a tough one. Born “funny,” as she puts it — and not the ha-ha kind — Maud was a tiny, hunched-over elf of a person when she went to work, at 34, for the man who would become her husband, cajoling Everett into letting her paint, as was her hobby, when she had finished her many chores.
It is in that painting hobby — recognized in the film by a vacationing New Yorker (Kari Matchett) to whom Everett has sold some fish — that director Aisling Walsh and screenwriter Sherry White see a kind of salvation for Maud. Eventually, her crude, unfussy paintings of seascapes, cats and nature begin to sell, bringing more money into the house than Everett’s fish and odd jobs. It is only when he realizes that his wife is a cash cow that he begins to soften.
But that’s a cynical way of reading this story, and probably not entirely fair. Walsh and White show Maud to be no doormat, and “Maudie” no victim tale. It is to Hawke’s credit that he is able to imbue his character with increasing warmth after making such a cold first impression.
Most of “Maudie” consists of quiet domesticity, punctuated by Everett’s cranky outbursts, as Maud’s artistic reputation spreads. (Richard Nixon was a client, buying paintings for the White House. And TV crews paid visits to her shacklike home.) But there is a side story involving a long-buried scandal that lends the film genuine poignancy, even if the love between Maud and Everett is far from a fairy-tale romance.
Hawke is good at playing bad, but Hawkins is better, rendering, in “Maudie,” a portrait of a woman that feels raw, real and revelatory.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains mature thematic material, brief sexuality and lots of smoking. 115 minutes.