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‘Maudie’ Review: Visual Art as Memory

Aisling Walsh’s film about Canadian artist Maud Lewis is one of the most interesting depictions of an artist on film to date.
By  · Published on August 12th, 2017

Aisling Walsh’s film about Canadian artist Maud Lewis is one of the most interesting depictions of an artist on film to date.

Maudie is a film that stays with the viewer hours, even days, after watching. The sharp slap of Everett Lewis’ (Ethan Hawke) hand across the titular character’s face; the juxtaposition of a drab, run-down home against the Canadian painter’s simplistic, bright colors; Sally Hawkins’ thoughtful, nuanced performance. These are just some of the moments that linger in the mind, with the film’s director Aisling Walsh practically painting Maud Lewis’ experiences into the viewer’s minds, becoming a part of the viewer’s memory.

It’s this very idea of shared experiences and memories that haunt Maudie. By documenting Maud Lewis, a beloved Canadian folk artist from Nova Scotia, Maudie is immediately intrinsically linked to memories – it’s attempting to reconstruct them on screen, after all. What’s more, with the film portraying a reclusive artist’s big break, Walsh and screenwriter Sherry Write easily could have strayed into Big Eyes territory. That is, taking a complex story about betrayal and authorship and turning it into an inspiring success tale. Whilst Big Eyes certainly has its merits, almost exclusively Amy Adams’ performance, Maudie thankfully averts the predictive tropes that befell Burton’s 2014 film.

Instead, Walsh’s film basks in its nearly two-hour run time to create a slowly-paced narrative that never feels rushed, despite showing Maud’s life from her painterly beginnings to her death. In fact, as the film goes on, it becomes clear to the viewer that Maudie is not concerned with time. (The only indicator Walsh gives to the passing of time is the uncontrollable physical appearances of the film’s two central characters or the alien-like cameras that intrude on Maud and Everett’s lives). The film prefers to present time, and the world, through Maud’s perspective: as a simplistic beauty that never fades but instead adapts. Yet with physical and emotional tensions between Maud’s Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) and Maud’s eventual husband, the film’s core themes – of beauty, happiness, and regret – never feel watered-down.

Maudie is a quiet film. The viewer is often left in moments of silence with Maud as she paints her shadow-less pictures. The movements Hawkins uses to depict Maud’s arthritis is so convincingly familiar to the actor that the limp of a foot or a turn of the head feels like a form of dialogue in itself. Likewise, the use of Cowboy Junkies’ ‘Something More Besides You’, Lisa Hannigan’s ‘Little Bird’, and Mary Margaret O’Hara’s ‘Dear Darling’ in the film and on its soundtrack signals how Walsh also uses songs in lieu of dialogue. For example, as Maud and Everett bond, Mary Margaret O’Hara’s lyrics mirror their tale: ‘Why would you go / And give me to cry? / A thing of such beauty / Might never die.’ Art informs art.

Maudie’s success comes as it reaches its conclusion. The closing scene features a Maud-less seat looking out at the same window the painter gained inspiration from. At this moment, the viewer remembers a quote Maud said earlier in the film, which Walsh – a few seconds into this final scene – repeats for her audience. “The whole of life,” says Maud, is “already framed” by a window. What makes this closing scene more resonant is that Maud dies facing away from a window. It’s a subtle touch that could easily be overlooked, but one that resonates. The life Maud sees is no longer framed, whilst the paintings the artist leaves behind act as the windows into the life she once saw.

In Andrew Karpan’s essay on that “particularly ekphrastic genre of cinema about people who make art,” he describes how the “artist movie” validates the viewer’s fantasy of seeing the labors of art quickly cut to the excitement of success. As Karpan quotes Julian Stallabrass: the artist profession is so popular because it allows artists, “like heroes in the movies, to endow work and life with its own meanings.” Walsh’s Maudie neither provides this “enlivening entertainment,” this kind of Michael Bay exploitation of painting rather than explosions, of seeing a well-known painting come to life. Nor does Maudie provide a critique of Maud Lewis’ work.

So what does Walsh’s film do? It doesn’t act as a typical biographical film – its narrative is to quiet and unassuming to be the next Turner. The film doesn’t exploit Maud’s life, either. Instead, it seems, Maudie exists for two reasons. The first is to act as a metaphorical window, a framing device, for the world Maud Lewis once saw. Second, Maudie tries to answer what one character ponders: what makes Maud Lewis tick.

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Freelance writer based in the UK.