British actor Sally Hawkins stays below the radar between screen roles. You don’t find her doing interviews, making personal appearances or blatantly promoting her career. But when she does pop up in a film, more often than not she’s memorable.
She was a terrific foil for Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, dazzling as a factory floor worker in Made in Dagenham, and remarkable in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky as the wearyingly chirpy Poppy, who finally wins you over with her essential goodness.
Hawkins gives the impression of choosing her roles carefully, then backing her instinct by giving her utmost to a character. She’s done it again in Maudie, a sweet, languorous film set in Canada on the Nova Scotia coast from the late 1930s.
She plays a woman in her mid-30s, stunted and twisted by arthritis, and regarded as a nuisance by her family – which consists of her brother and aunt. Determined to distance herself from them, she answers an ad placed by Everett, a gruff, taciturn fishmonger (Ethan Hawke); he needs a maid to look after his home, which amounts to a run-down shack. They’re contrasting personalities; he’s reclusive and sullen, while she’s open and upbeat. The relationship does not start well; Everett treats her cruelly and callously.
But then things start looking up. He warms to her; the couple ‘lie together’ and get married. And Maud starts to express her talent for painting. She could be categorised as a folk artist, and her work was brightly coloured, featuring animals, birds and flowers. Eccentrically, she began painting on almost every available surface in her humble home. Word gradually spread about her extraordinary talent; people would drive miles to see her paintings and buy them. Implausibly, she became famous.
It’s a curious story, and rather a heartening one, though I suspect some of its harsher aspects, especially in Everett’s treatment of Maud, may have been softened. Still, there’s a lot to like and admire in Maudie: Irish director Aisling Walsh has created a visually beautiful work, one that dodges the usual clichés of most film biographies, and takes constantly surprising twists and turns.
It’s also worth saying that Ethan Hawke is a revelation in what could have been an unpromising role as Everett. In person, Hawke is handsome, brainy and articulate, but here he burrows deep and makes Everett a vulnerable, multi-faceted character with a heart. (A role further removed from Jesse, Hawke’s romantic lead in the Before Sunrise trilogy, it would be hard to imagine.)
Still, Hawkins is the centre of attention here, and rightly so. Hers is a richly detailed performance in a film that moves and inspires, while never short-changing the grit and determination of a remarkable woman whose artistic impulses will not be denied.
Maudie is in cinemas on August 4
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