Filmmaker Aisling Walsh is not a native Canadian — she’s a Dubliner who has pursued most of her career in England. But Walsh fell in love with Nova Scotia after learning about Maud Lewis (1903-70), the beloved folk artist who spent her life in and around the province’s southern town of Digby.
“The landscape was breathtaking, but very rugged and forbidding,” Walsh says. “To think that Maud lived and worked here, in these surroundings, was incredibly moving. She had such a hard life, full of pain from arthritis that she contracted as a child. And then there was her house, which is so very tiny — nothing more than a shed, really. It struck me as the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.”
The result of Walsh’s interest in Lewis is “Maudie,” which debuted overseas in 2016 and is only now seeing a Japan release under the title “Shiawase no Enogu.” Shot in the Canadian province of Newfoundland (Walsh says she couldn’t get permission to film in Nova Scotia), the film is an ode to the painter — played wonderfully by Sally Hawkins, who also gave an Oscar-worthy performance in “The Shape of Water” — who defied the odds to make art in her own little corner of the world. Among her clients was U.S. President Richard Nixon, who bought two of her pieces to hang in the White House after her death in 1970.
“Maudie” is not really about Lewis’ success, though; it’s an unabashedly intimate portrait of a remarkable woman and the husband (played by Ethan Hawke) with whom she shared the tiny house. They met when she was 34 and he was 40, and the relationship was abusive at times.
“There was a lot of discussion online about how the husband hits Maud,” Walsh says. “I suppose I could have told it differently, but I wanted to show how strong she was, that he could see her strength, and how he changed.”
Hawkins is fantastic as Maud, who suffered from arthritis and chain-smoked to try and ease her agony.
“It pained Maud to move or even breathe sometimes,” Walsh says. “It was certainly difficult to work. But she never lost her passion for art or zest for life.”
Despite the abuse and health problems, Hawkins doesn’t play Maud like a victim. She’s a shrewd woman who knows how to stand up for herself. After a youth spent under the thumb of a domineering aunt, she is disinherited in her mid-30s by her brother, Charles (Zachary Bennett), and kicked out of their parents’ house. Disabled and homeless, but determined to be independent, she answers an ad by Everett Lewis (Hawke), a local fishmonger in need of “a woman to help around the house.” But when she knocks on his door, he takes one look and then completely ignores her.
Everett is a difficult role for an actor, especially one like Hawke who’s known more for his nice-guy performances.
“I knew Ethan could handle Everett, and that he wouldn’t be afraid of playing that sort of character,” Walsh says. “He has a holiday home in Nova Scotia and goes there for the summer, so he knows the local fishermen and how they think and talk. He finds a lot of truth in those men, and that respect comes out in how he plays this role.”
Given the current climate surrounding the way women are portrayed in film — many viewers are voicing displeasure with consistently seeing female characters abused on screen — Walsh didn’t shy away from scenes of domestic abuse.
“I just trusted that people would understand that it was a different era (prior to World War II) and a different social climate,” she says. “Men behaved differently to women, and women expected different things from men.”
After Maud moves in with Everett, he tells her that, in his house, he comes first. Then the dog and then the chickens. Still, a chemistry emerges between the pair. A few weeks after Maud has arrived, she and Everett get married.
“Everett is mean, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t change,” Walsh says. “In the end, he becomes endearing, though he didn’t suddenly turn into a nice man. He learns from Maud about caring for someone, and to be a civilized human being, but I wanted to show how the transformation was gradual.”
It was certainly a challenge for Maud, who simply wants to paint — despite the lack of support from Everett.
“Everett was tough because he didn’t know what else to be. He watched every penny, and wouldn’t buy her anything.” But, Walsh says, “Everett also buys Maud her first set of oil paints … though he’s really, really gruff about it.
Walsh believes that such hardship must have made Lewis a better painter.
“Folk art is born out of necessity, it’s like a guest is coming over so someone has to make the place pretty, so they paint a flower on a wall. That’s where it begins. Maud painted because she wanted some happiness in the midst of all that pain and hardship.
“Her house is a wonder, it’s almost like her diary. I can’t talk about the movie or think about Maud without envisioning her house all over again.”
“Maudie” is now playing in select cinemas.
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