Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Ten Best Films of 2017: #2

Reminiscent of Bill Forsyth’s great “Housekeeping,” Aisling Walsh’s “Maudie,” a biography of the Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis, staked claim to the highest in cinematic achievement in the first half of 2017. Profoundly moving without a hint of the maudlin, it stands on the shoulders of Oscar-worthy performances by Sally Hawkins and, as Maud’s husband Everett, Ethan Hawke, and a Sherry White script that speaks volumes in few words.

We first meet Maud when her brother, Charles (Zachary Bennett), stops by to tell her he’s sold their family home. Distraught, she chafes at life with her prudish Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose). When Everett, a gruff and barely sociable fish peddler, places an ad seeking a housemaid, she gathers her few belongings in her red wagon and walks several miles to his house to apply. Everett can be prideful and verbally and physically abusive: “There’s me, the dogs, them chickens – then you.” But when he acts up, she picks up her paintbrush, painting primitives of flowers, birds and animals. They also share a bed upstairs – “That not fancy enough for you?” Everett asks, to which Maud replies, “Suits me.”

Over time, Maud makes a friend in Sondra (Kari Matchett), a snappily dressed New York transplant to Nova Scotia who recognizes Maud’s artistry first: “Name your price.” Eventually, her work lands in the office of Vice President Nixon, and Maud and Everett make the television news. This gives Everett, who’s happy to take the money, cause for further resentment (“There I am plastered on the TV for all the world to laugh at”), and what a daring part for Hawke to take. There is nothing warm or fuzzy about this manimal – let’s face it; today he’d probably be put away for some of what he does here – but Hawke maintains his integrity and locates his well-hidden humanity.

The film, though, ultimately belongs to Sally Hawkins, who has been very good for a very long time but has finally – God willing – found a vehicle to stardom. Her work here surprises and delights at every turn, bringing out Maud’s humor and her indomitable spirit. (Contrast it with a stunt performance like Dustin Hoffman’s in “Rain Man” and you see the true cost of cheap gimmickry.) Like Forsyth’s work, “Maudie” is very much of the north – the harsh weather educing all of one’s resourcefulness, yet yielding luminous beauty – and as with “Housekeeping” few will be able to keep from sniffling or developing that telltale lump in the throat.

Walsh mounts scenes magnificently and returns frequently to Maud’s love for windows: “The whole of the world, already framed for you, right there.” When White does go for the heartstrings, she chooses her words perfectly, as when a now-ailing Maud reminds Everett how much he loves dogs (“You should get more of them”), or in her last deathbed question to him, which is so achingly poignant I won’t repeat it here. In a small, exceptionally lovely film, it’s as big a question as any we humans ever ask.

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