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Maudie lives up to great expectations at Atlantic Film Festival's opening gala

Maudie, the Newfoundland-shot movie about Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis, opens commercially next spring and features an amazing performance by Sally Hawkins as the artist who transcended physical challenges to paint beauty and who found love with her unlikely husband Everett.
Sally Hawkins stars as folk artist Maud Lewis in a remarkable performance in Maudie. (DUNCAN de YOUNG)

Like many a Nova Scotian, I have a strong attachment to Maud Lewis.

My father, Murray Barnard, and photographer Bob Brooks did an article on Maud Lewis for the Star Weekly in 1965, soon followed by a CBC-TV Telescope piece. Both launched the folk artist's career, drawing people to her tiny Marshalltown home outside Digby to buy whimsical $5 paintings of cows, cats, fishing villages and deer in the snowy woods that now sell for over $5,000. 

I grew up with a cheerful print above the stove of a couple driving a Model T. Many years later, my young daughter was enthralled by Maud's enchanted, painted house, so tiny that it fits entirely inside the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

So it was with great skepticism and anticipation that I went to the 36th Atlantic Film Festival's packed opening-night screening Thursday of Maudie, a film shot entirely in Newfoundland about our beloved Maud.

Newfoundland writer Sherry White's idea to fictionalize the story to create an unlikely romance between a crippled folk artist and an embittered, impoverished man — both outcasts in their community — will raise eyebrows in Nova Scotia. In real life, Everett plays to very mixed reviews as a miserly, harsh man keeping Maud in poverty.

However, the film is stunningly beautiful and deeply moving with lashes of humour as award-winning Irish director Aisling Walsh, working with Nova Scotia director of photography Guy Godfree, creates a painterly, poetic and fast-paced picture celebrating Maud's artistry and her spirit.

HAWKEEthan Hawke and Sally Hawkins star in Maudie. After their wedding, Maud is pure happiness and Everett is his usual stoic self. (DUNCAN DeYOUNG)

Whether this Irish-Newfoundland co-production gets on the Academy Awards radar or not, Sally Hawkins deserves an Oscar nomination for her remarkable performance as Maudie.

She never overdoes the physical problems that plagued Maud Lewis (1903-1970), born disfigured with sloping shoulders and a chin resting on her chest, then later plagued by juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. The physical issues are subtly, then increasingly, present but never the central fact of the character.

Hawkins' Maudie transcends her physical disabilities with an inner steely strength and a radiant, high-spirited, loving personality. She is not impervious to pain but is able to sweep it into the dusty corners. 

The folk artist has a visceral connection to colour and paint that is filmed dripping from brushes to look as delicious as the finest ice cream. Art-making lifts her out of poverty and away from Everett's meanness as she paints the inside and outside of her home.

The viewer sees how Maud sees and the beautifully shot rural landscape is also key to this picture.

walshAisling Walsh directed Maudie. (Courtesy of Mongrel Media)

I miss the Nova Scotia exteriors but Newfoundland serves up the rugged landscape necessary to depicting these hard-working, subsistence-level lives.

When Maudie answers Everett's ad for a housekeeper, the fish peddler gets more than he bargained for. The romance is somewhat incredible but I enjoy believing in it and Ethan Hawke rises to the difficult task of playing the still-waters-run-deep man whose silence, grunts and occasional flashes of real cruelty mask a need for love and a tenderness waiting to be awakened. 

The tiny moments in this visually poetic and well-written film are wonderful — the repeated image of Everett pushing Maud along in a cart against a gorgeous landscape; the wedding night scene when Everett and Maud dance after a fashion and compare each other to old socks; the intense, sad time when Maudie tells her friend, New York neighbour Sandra, why she paints and how she sees the world. 

Director Walsh hopes her movie lifts Maud Lewis to the international stage. “There were very few women artists in the world who are well known,” she said at the screening, citing artists Frida Kahlo, Georgia O'Keeffe and Tamara Lempicka. “I want Maud Lewis to be one of those great women artists.”

Walsh celebrated the creativity of women by lining the stage with "the greatest women I've ever worked with" — producers Mary Sexton, Mary Young Leckie and Susan Mullen, costume designer Trysha Bakker and Canadian actress Gabrielle Rose, who plays Maudie's Aunt Ida.

The director had never heard of the artist before she read the script. "One of the first things that I did was come to Halifax on a winter's day in 2014. I walked into the museum and I saw that house and I knew I had to make this film.

"It was so important to me and my producers to bring it back here tonight."

Notably absent during 45 minutes of pre-screening speeches was a spokesperson for the provincial government as speakers made many veiled references to the provincial government's cutting of the film tax credit that sent the local industry into a tailspin.

Andy Fillmore, Liberal MP for Halifax, told a funny story about his parents honeymooning in rural Nova Scotia and visiting the Lewis house.  His mother wanted to buy a painting by Maud for $20 but times were tight so her new husband selected a $10 painting of a cat by Everett. (The fact that Everett also painted in an effort to make money off of Maud's style is left out of this film. His paintings never skyrocketed in value.)

Fillmore also announced $500,000 over two years in Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency funding for the Atlantic Film Festival for expansion and marketing and $63,300 for the international buyers program Strategic Partners.

Fillmore's wife Sarah Fillmore, chief curator at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, and Shannon Parker, the gallery's curator of collections, worked with the filmmakers in painstakingly recreating Lewis's minuscule house in Newfoundland. The filmmakers also drew on Brooks's photographs. 

Actors Hawke, who has had a home in Nova Scotia since 2002, and Hawkins visited the house in Halifax at the end of filming.

Hawkins, in a note read by Walsh, made a point of thanking the gallery for letting her sit inside the house for a half-hour so she could say goodbye to her character.

Neither Hawke nor Hawkins, an Oscar nominee for her role in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, were at the Halifax screening. 

Mongrel Media is releasing Maudie, with lovely music that includes an original score by Michael Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies, commercially in the spring. It's lovely that Maud Lewis is not just a legacy but lives again in this convincing, inspiring portrayal. 


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