Ireland Canada (115 mi) 2016 ‘Scope d: Aisling Walsh Official site
A highly personalized and acutely intimate film whose strength lies in the outstanding performances of the two central actors, Sally Hawkins, who seems to specialize in playing kooky, offbeat characters, from Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) and Woody Allen’s 2013 Top Ten List #7 Blue Jasmine, is Maud Dowley, whose brittle body is suffering from the effects of having contracted polio at a young age, but also rheumatoid arthritis, making it difficult to walk, and Ethan Hawke as Everett Lewis, an illiterate fish-peddler raised in a nearby orphanage, a man living alone in a one-roomed shack that is overly run down. Set in Nova Scotia, but actually shot in Newfoundland, the film is an Irish-Canadian production, with both countries heavily supportive of the arts. With a minimalist script written by Sherry White, Maud is a quietly unsung heroine leading a life that was easily overlooked, even by her own family, where she’s constantly viewed as a burden, even an embarrassment, easily dismissed, where she’s grown used to being called a “cripple.” Forcing her into a miserable life that she wants no part of, with her ambitious brother Charlie (Zachary Bennett) selling off the family home, sending her to live in Digby under the religiously strict care of her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose), with no one ever asking what she preferred. Bolting out the door at the first chance, she jumps at the opportunity to work as the cleaning woman for Everett, walking the four miles to his isolated shack on the road to Marshalltown, a 10 by 12 foot dwelling with no running water, plumbing, or electricity. As she’s a sight for sore eyes, he’s reluctant to hire her, turning her away at first, calling her “slim pickins,” forcing her to turn around and walk all the way back home. But upon further reflection, he’s desperate for the help and gives her a second chance, driving to Ida’s home to pick her up, where she gathers up her belongings, with her aunt furious for leaving, telling her to never come back again, calling her a “whore.” Her first day is dreadful, ordered to leave by nightfall, where it’s clear Everett, a man of few words, has no patience whatsoever for those not already self-motivated to work hard, where if she has to ask what to do, she may as well not show up at all. By morning, however, she can be seen scrubbing the floors, making herself useful as he flies out the door on his morning rounds. The intrusive camera never leaves Maud, following her every step of the way, where she becomes part of the viewer’s consciousness simply by immersing the audience into her highly personalized world. Using a slow and extremely spare film style that follows the changing seasons, with almost whispering guitar music from Canadian Cowboy Junkie Michael Timmins, where often not much happens, but this allows their world to remain distant and remote, which heightens the individuality of their experience.
Lewis is brutally harsh with her from the outset, even uncomfortably so, yet that is in keeping with his hard scrabble life, a guy who scrounges anything that he can for a living, where he still occasionally eats with the boys of the orphanage for performing needed work around the premises, where the Catholic brother in charge, Mr. Hill (Greg Malone), is likely his only friend in the world. When Maud’s initial presence at the cabin surprises one of Everett’s customers, he inappropriately whacks her right on the jaw for opening her mouth, punished for just trying to be friendly. He makes it clear that as far as he’s concerned, the order of importance is “Me, them dogs, them chickens, then you.” There are long sequences where little is spoken, as Lewis is away during the day, while Maud discovers a can of paint, initially painting flowers and animals on the cabin walls, as a form of decoration to brighten things up. As time goes on, she paints walls, doors, breadboxes, even the stove, while also finding scraps of wood grabbed out of garbage piles, using a clearly distinctive style, described as naïve art, due to the simplicity of the images and her lack of artistic training. As a rule, she never mixed colors, but painted only things she knew, like outdoor scenes or nearby landscapes, where most are quite small, perhaps 8 by 10 inches, as the size was limited by the limited extent she could move her arms. One of the few unanticipated scenes concerns the arrival of a modern day woman, Sandra (Kari Matchett), whose nice car and fancy clothes grab Maud’s attention, but she’s there to settle accounts with Lewis, as he owes her for some fish that he never delivered. When she steps in the door, she’s impressed by the artwork she sees, offering to buy something, allowing her to set a price, actually commissioning her first work for $5 dollars. Everett never saw much in her work, but he certainly appreciated the $5 dollars. Maud decided to write down his business arrangements, keeping it all tallied on paper, so there would be no misunderstandings. When Everett and Maud arrive at Sandra’s door with a handful of fish, Maud includes a receipt on the back of a card she painted, which only sparks Sandra’s interest for more. Before long, they put a sign on a chair outside their home that paintings are for sale, some sitting in front of the windows, with more inside. Despite the small asking price, Maud starts a healthy business on her own, deciding to put the name Lewis on each painting, as they share in the profits. In their cramped quarters, with the only available bed in an upstairs loft, it was just a matter of time before they become intimate, with Maud insisting if they start doing that, they’ll need to get married.
One of the turning points in the film is a visit from a reporter and camera crew from a Canadian newspaper and television station, hearing that she’s selling paintings from the side of the road, and quite affordable at that, interviewing both in their home, though Everett barely utters a word, writing up a story that appears in the newspaper and shows on television, which spreads her fame across the entire nation, even receiving a letter from Vice-President Nixon requesting paintings that still hang in the White House, with others adorning the walls of the Legislative Building of Nova Scotia. Whether due to jealousy, or just his overall ornery disposition, despite warming to Maud on occasion, Lewis maintains a gruff demeanor, even after they get married, as he seems to be channeling a combination of a down and out Tom Waits and an aging John McCabe (Warren Beatty) from McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), cribbing one of his best lines from the film, where “All you've cost me so far is money and pain,” becomes “All you’ve meant to me so far is pain, pain, pain,” His constant misery grows amusing after a while, as she’s quite the opposite, always upbeat, even humorous, with a cryptic wit, seeing a brighter side, appreciating the smaller things, where her vibrantly colorful paintings reflect her interior world. Nonetheless, at some point, feeling particularly low, Everett deplores all the trouble she’s worth, claiming once again that she’s “less than a dog,” where his bleak and overly glum outlook becomes a contentious sticking point in their relationship, refusing to give her any credit, where she’s forced to walk out on him, moving into a spare room with Sandra, where she’s actually able to appreciate some of the finer things for a change. Missing her dearly, however, and bemoaning his loss, Everett’s life isn’t the same without her, where it’s clear he’s fighting his own instincts, as he hasn’t a clue how to explain why he’s drawn to her. There is no grand reconciliation, just a simple acknowledgement, “We’re like a pair of old socks,” she says, as the two often misunderstood misfits seem to be stronger together. Over time, Maud receives all the work she can handle, yet they never think to move into a bigger or more comfortable place to live, both quite happy where they are, living on the edge of town. For the audience, however, spending so much time in their cramped, claustrophobic quarters is like being in the engine room of a submarine where there’s simply no elbow room, constantly feeling confined and hemmed in. This is not without consequences. As they rely upon a wood burning stove for heat, with Maud spending so much time indoors, she develops emphysema, making it difficult to breathe. With her decreasing mobility from her debilitating arthritis, causing a shortened range of motion, Hawkins actually underplays her disability, which was much more profound than what’s shown onscreen, though in keeping with the quiet spaciousness of the film, there’s an eloquent acoustic refrain sung near the end by Margo Timmins that seems to be a fitting eulogy of her life, Something More Besides You - YouTube (2:02), with many of her paintings seen throughout the final credit sequence, and while sold for less than $10 dollars, some have amassed an auction price of more than $20,000. A large collection of her work can be found in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, including her fully restored house, which was saved by local citizens, going through a 25-year struggle to maintain the home. While not shown in the film, the story has an even worse end, as nine years after Maud died, Everett was killed when a burglar murdered him during an attempted robbery in his home.