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‘Maudie’ review: Well-intented biopic is unfocused study of artist

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In "Maudie," Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins can't quite add color to drab Maud Lewis biopic. Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Classics / Duncan Deyoung

PLOT The life of Maud Lewis, a self-taught artist from Nova Scotia whose paintings wound up in the White House.

CAST Sally Hawkins, Ethan Hawke

RATED PG-13 (suggested sexuality)

LENGTH 1:55

PLAYING AT Manhasset Cinemas, Stony Brook 17 and Malverne Cinema 4.

BOTTOM LINE A well-intentioned but unfocused study of a little-known figure.

Some artists lead colorful lives, while others put all the color into their work. The former can make for memorable cinematic subjects: Think “Pollock,” “Basquiat” and “Crumb.” The latter don’t always translate well to the screen, and Maud Lewis, the heroine of “Maudie,” seems to fall into that category. Though beautifully directed by Aisling Walsh from a well-intentioned screenplay by Sherry White, “Maudie” presents us with an artist whose life seems to resist the dramatic arc necessary to pull us through a movie.

Sally Hawkins plays Maud, who was born in 1903 in Nova Scotia and suffered from rheumatoid arthritis from a very young age. Although Hawkins is a naturally lithe and graceful actress, she gives us a vivid sense of Maud’s hunched back, gnarled hands and unsteady gait. Hawkins’ radiant smile also suggests the most remarkable thing about this woman: Despite a life of near-constant pain (and ill treatment from her family), Maud painted joyful, childlike pictures — often on paper cards or pieces of wood — of happy birds, tender little deer and frowny-faced cats.

While living with a poor fisherman, Everett Lewis (first as his housekeeper, then as his wife), Maud is visited by a fancy New Yorker (Kari Matchett), who buys a few of her fetching little cards for 10 cents apiece. That leads to a home-based business in paintings ($5 for larger works), then a spate of publicity, then a commission from Vice President Richard Nixon. Everett isn’t impressed: “He pays for ’em like everyone else,” he growls.

“Maudie” doesn’t quite know what to do with Everett, and neither does the actor who plays him, Ethan Hawke. On the one hand, Everett is a cruel, miserly man who hits Maud and compares her to a dog; on the other, he’s a somewhat comical figure who reluctantly does his own housework as Maud devotes more time to painting. Despite a valiant effort from an intense Hawke, this unevenly drawn character becomes the film’s fatal flaw.

“Maudie” may not fully illuminate Lewis as a person, but it should help revive interest in her paintings. Those lovely re-creations of natural beauty and innocent wildlife are what stay with us when the film is over.

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