One day, Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke will form a rock band with John Hawkes and call it Birds of Prey.
Until then, viewers may see the first two performers in Maudie, taking on roles different than their usually cheerful characters — detours that don’t necessarily mean wise decisions, but involve a high degree of difficulty and a sense that the pair are realizing the material to the best of their abilities.
Irish director Aisling Walsh’s biopic of Nova Scotia outsider artist Maud Lewis stars Hawkins as the arthritic, somewhat shy woman with a peculiar way of speaking. A genuinely nice person, Maud is nonetheless difficult to weather due to her seeming simplemindedness, yet earns sympathy points upon moving in with Everett Lewis (Hawke) as his housekeeper.
A hardscrabble fishmonger whose lack of social skills and abundance of possessiveness over what little he has is flimsily explained by a childhood spent in an orphanage, Everett is consistently mean to Maud, abusing her emotionally and physically for falling short of expectations he’s failed to communicate.
Despite the absence of support from Maud’s selfish brother Charles Dowley (Zachary Bennett) and cruel Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) all but forcing her to stay put, her lack of considering alternatives — which culminates in agreeing to be her employer’s wife — compounds the frustrations of Everett’s imposing ways to make Maudie a frequently unpleasant sit.
Smoothing out these splintery edges is Walsh’s eye for nature, which captures the beauty of this corner of the world, from beautiful summers to harsh, picturesque winters.
The film grows even more approachable when Maud concentrates on her painting. Encouraged by Sandra (Kari Matchett), a vacationing New Yorker who’s the first to buy her work and becomes her friend, Maud experiences true contagious joy through her passion and brightens the lives of those who see the results.
While Everett remains distant as he helps Maud sell and market her work, the distraction generally keeps him from laying into her, though he nonetheless relapses in his frustrating old habits, much to the film’s detriment.
Difficult as the Lewises’ story is to stomach, a greater challenge would be denying the commitment Hawkins and Hawke bring to their respective characters. Maudie provides each with work either can point to if accused of lacking range — but doing so would require that the doubting party watch the film, and that’s not something all that advisable.
Grade: C-plus. Rated PG-13. Now playing at the Fine Arts Theatre
(Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)