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‘Maudie’ Review: Sally Hawkins Saves an Otherwise Missed Opportunity

Rather than tell the true story of its fascinating heroine — an arthritic Canadian artist — the film settles for predictable, underwritten romance

“Maudie,” based on the true story of a Canadian folk artist, boasts a powerful, Oscar-worthy performance by Sally Hawkins in the title role, and it’s set in a beautifully scenic corner of Nova Scotia.

For those two assets, it’s worth seeing. But as a love story it leaves quite a bit to be desired.

Hawkins brings Maude Dowley Lewis, an arthritic folk artist with a can-do spirit, to vivid life in the seemingly effortless way that the talented British actress has with well-drawn roles. Her performance as Poppy in 2008’s “Happy-Go-Lucky” was a revelation, and even playing second fiddle to Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine,” Hawkins made an indelible impression. She is easily one of the best actresses working today, and also perhaps one of the most under-rated.

The film opens with the spirited but fragile Maudie living with a stern, disapproving aunt. Out of a blend of desperation, determination and rebellion, she takes a job as a housekeeper for taciturn fish peddler Everett (Ethan Hawke), who lives in a small ramshackle house in a remote fishing village. At first, this new situation seems no better: Lacking even the remotest social graces, the reclusive Everett is a nasty cuss. He orders Maudie around and tells her that his dogs and chickens are higher on his pecking order than she is. He hits her.

And it’s in the character of Everett that the film — directed by Irish filmmaker Aisling Walsh (“Fingersmith”) — falters. Hawke is woefully miscast; he’s a terrific actor, but he is simply not believable in the role of a crusty Canadian fishmonger. Hawke seems unable to transcend a contemporary quality to play a cruel, tight-lipped character living in the 1940s and ’50s.

Given his often voluble roles, it’s clear why he might have relished the challenge of playing such a quiet and surly figure. But his character’s unrelieved nastiness makes the eventual romance with Maudie even harder to buy. Walsh intends their growing love to touch our hearts and loosen our tear ducts, but it’s hard to muster warm feelings for a man of few words who hits a woman and treats her like a farm animal.

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We are meant to believe that they come to understand one another and affection takes hold. They eventually marry, at her behest. The film’s tagline, “Without love, there is no purpose,” hardly seems to capture the mood and theme of the story, and gives short shrift to the more riveting tale of a woman finding her creative direction.

Maudie’s artistic passion and unflagging cheerfulness, despite her worsening rheumatoid arthritis, will resonate with viewers, especially as exquisitely portrayed by the estimable Hawkins. Walsh’s deliberate pacing allows the viewer to get to know the character over the languid course of the film, and Hawkins’ nuanced performance is marked by emotional depth, as well as a convincing physicality. Maudie’s creative nature, and her colorful work, endears her to those in the community, and over time, draws admirers far from the shores of her simple home.

Filmed mostly in Newfoundland and Labrador, the cinematography by Guy Godfree (Sundance 2016 hit “Lovesong”) deftly captures the sea-swept beauty and haunting solitude of Maudie and Everett’s existence. The play of light along the water’s shore leaves a lasting impression. The script, however, spent a decade in development, and perhaps writer Sherry White’s original draft was re-tooled to play up a sentimental love story over the narrative of a women coping with disability as she becomes one of Canada’s most acclaimed folk artists.

Hers is an inherently intriguing tale, as well as a quintessential story of overcoming adversity. The film did not need to shift focus from that to a generic romance. Had the focus had remained trained on Maudie working with her disability to become an artist, rather than winning an abusive man’s heart, the results would have been significantly more interesting.

“Maudie” depicts her evolution as an artist, painting vibrant imagery — often flowers and scenes of nature — on unconventional surfaces, sometimes wherever a bare wall presents itself. A New York woman vacationing in Canada is drawn to Maudie’s vivid artwork and soon others begin to buy her art. Her work eventually is featured in the White House.

The story of a woman dismissed by those around her who asserts herself through art testifies to the indomitable power of creativity. Why turn that compelling story into a predictable romance?