Starring Sally Hawkins, Ethan Hawke, Kari Matchett, Gabrielle Rose, Zachary Bennett; directed by Aisling Walsh; 115 minutes; PG-13 for mature thematic material, brief sexuality and lots of smoking.
"Maudie," a fact-based drama about the late Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis and her strange relationship with her husband, is as charming as a tale can be with a person as unlovable as Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke).
The word "curmudgeon" is inadequate to describe Everett's (initially) repellent nature. Marrying Maud in 1938, weeks after hiring her as his live-in housekeeper for 25 cents a week, this boorish fish peddler expects his wife to keep her place - behind him, his two dogs and his chickens.
Maud is a pure delight, supplying nearly all of this film biography's quiet pleasures, many of which come every time Sally Hawkins, as the quirky, chain-smoking, severely arthritic title character, lets out one of Maud's signature, adorable little giggles.
The question of what she has to laugh about makes this film a most unorthodox love story. Maud was a tiny, hunched-over elf of a person when she went to work, at 34, for the man who would become her husband, cajoling Everett into letting her paint when she had finished her many chores.
In that painting - recognized in the film by a vacationing New Yorker (Kari Matchett) to whom Everett has sold some fish - director Aisling Walsh and screenwriter Sherry White see salvation for Maud. Eventually, her crude, unfussy paintings of seascapes, cats and nature begin to sell, bringing in more money than Everett's fish and odd jobs. Only when he realizes his wife is a cash cow does Everett soften.
But Aisling and White show Maud to be no doormat, and "Maudie" no victim tale. To Hawke's credit, he imbues his character with increasing warmth after a cold first impression.
Most of "Maudie" is quiet domesticity, punctuated by Everett's cranky outbursts, as Maud's artistic reputation spreads. (Richard Nixon was a client, buying paintings for the White House. And TV crews visited her shacklike home.) But a side story involves a long-buried scandal that lends the film poignancy, even if the love between Maud and Everett is far from a fairy-tale romance.
Hawke is good at playing bad, but Hawkins is better, rendering, in "Maudie," a portrait of a woman that feels raw, real and revelatory.