Nova Scotian folk artist Maud Lewis (1903–1970) was born with rheumatoid arthritis, which gave her limited use of her hands and caused her to walk with a limp. Encouraged by her husband, Everett (Ethan Hawke), she painted every day of her life and became one of the most cherished artists in Canadian history.
As the biopic begins, Maud’s parents have both passed on, and her brother has left her in the care of her strict Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose). Neither family member thinks Maud can take care of herself, but despite her disabilities, she is determined to live on her own. While at the town grocery store, Maud overhears a loud, stomping man come in and tell the store owner he wants to place an ad for “a woman to do the cleaning.” The man is local fish peddler Everett Lewis, a curmudgeon who doesn’t care for other people. Maud shows up on the doorstep of Everett’s house, a tiny one-room shack with an attic—it maybe Maud’s only chance to ever get away from Aunt Ida. Even though Everett says no to her, she persists until he gives in.
The two mix like oil and water, Everett kicks her out nearly every day out of resistance to the changes that she brings to the house and that are meant to improve his life—never mind that’s what he asked for in that ad. As Everett barks at Maud, “There’s me, them dogs, them chickens, then you!” Maud does the housework while Everett goes out on his rounds. While Everett is a hard worker, he isn’t a very good businessman. At times he forgets to deliver orders and how much his customers owe him. After their many run-ins, Maud finally discovers how she can subtly suggest changes to him, walking him through the logic that if he were to let her keep track of his orders, he would stand to make more money. Maud starts accompanying him on his rounds, but word gets around that the two are living in sin. That isn’t far from the truth, as they do share a bed. Not too long after she moves in with him, they get married.
Sally Hawkins plays Maud with a sharp coyness, often uttering witty remarks under her breath. To portray Maud, she has to contort her body and keep a pensive demeanor. It’s a performance that is heartbreaking at times because so many people just won’t give her a chance, based on her physicality. But by the end, Maud becomes a fully realized, spirited person who can stand firmly upon her accomplishments.
Having a career filled with roles that required verbose dialogue, such as his films with Richard Linklater, it’s a refreshing turn for Hawke to be in a part that is majorly physical. Everett is a man of few words, and Hawke’s performance emphasizes his movements and facial expressions. Because the film mostly takes place in the couple’s little abode (anyone interested in the tiny home movement should check this movie out), much of the film relies on the chemistry between Hawkins and Hawke, which is palpable and makes this film worthy of multiple viewings. The two have a relationship that is ornery, often fighting over trifles, but there is a lot of love there. Although Everett insists he is the one who wears the pants, Maud knows how to get what she wants from him. After Maud’s painting career begins to flourish, the household roles reverse, with Everett now cleaning so she can have more time to paint. When she gets Everett to sweep the floor for the first time, their expressions are absolutely priceless and endearing.
While much of the focus is on their marriage, let us not forget the importance of Maud Lewis’s paintings. From being such an outsider, she has wisdom about people nobody around her possesses. Interestingly, Maud reaches for her paintbrush in times of duress; painting is literally her means of escape. And also expression; her steadfastness led her to revealing herself through her work. In fact, Maud drew on every surface of their tiny house. The film’s production had to re-create the home, as the real one is now in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
Lewis’s paintings were simplistic: animals and landscapes, many snowy scenes, people in horse drawn carriages. They are even crude some might say, but what many would come to appreciate was the childlike wonder she captured in her art. When asked what keeps her going, Maud answers that she doesn’t care what is happening in her marriage, “as long as I got a brush in my hand and a window in front of me, I’m all right.” What a wonderful way to embrace life.