Maudie Review: A Complicated Life and Love

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At times, Maudie is a deeply upsetting film. At others, it’s incredibly sweet. Teetering between these two tones is where director Aisling Walsh’s debut film occasionally gets into trouble. The true story of Maude Dowley (Sally Jenkins) is complicated and sad, and yet the film is somehow very forgiving. Is it because Maude was herself forgiving? Or is it because 1930s society really couldn’t do much better for Maude? Both are probably true to a degree, and that’s where the film manages to get away with its awkward tonal shifts.

Arthritic to the point where holding a paintbrush is no easy task, Maude is a Nova Scotia native living in a time where disabled women had only the smallest chance of fulfillment. She’s hired as a house maid for Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), who emotionally—and on one instance physically—abuses her. And yet, Maude is all smiles, spending her time painting genuinely charming nature scenes rich in color that use simplicity to their advantage. After a customer of Everett’s offers to pay for Maude’s work, the duo starts to sell them, and their success reaps an unlikely romantic connection.

This is where the film’s odd forgiving nature comes in. Maude and Everett may be products of a time unkind to women, but Everett sure gets away with a lot for her to still stick around. Strangest of all, the film doesn’t really deal with the consequences of this abuse on Maude’s psyche, instead showing how she’s improving the man she’s with. It eventually boils over and the couple has to deal with it, but it’s not handled with the severity you would think it requires.

Either way, Jenkins is absolutely electric as Maude, delivering a performance as emotional as it is physical. She’s the shining light that brings the character’s whole strange world together, and ultimately why the film works. Hawke mostly just grunts, but when the script gives him a chance to deliver something with a little more heft, it’s comparable to the most complex works of his career (here I am mostly referring to the finale of Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, what I believe to be the actor’s career best moments).

As a biopic, Maudie hits all the notes you might expect. It’s not necessarily trying to avoid the cliches, but instead tapping them warmly on the shoulder like Maude does her eventual husband in a tender scene. It’s ultimately Maude’s personality, and Jenkins’ portrait of it, that make the film a success. It may not deal with everything it brings up in a satisfying manner, but it manages to be uplifting anyway. It’s the rare biopic that justifies its own making simply by showing us a person we’d all be better off knowing personally. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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