“Maudie” is one of those movies that triumph over their worst instincts (and your well-honed doubts). There’s a lot to get past, including an opener that engages in some generic place-setting, and a pushy score that insistently tries to lighten the darker moods. But stick with the movie for its leads, Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke, a beautifully matched pair who open up two closed people, unleashing torrents of feeling.
Ms. Hawkins plays Maud Lewis, who, when the story starts, is in her early 30s and struggling to maintain a fragile independence. She’s living with her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose), a dour scold whose opprobrium has seeped into every corner of her house and who enters, haggling with a man who proves to be Maud’s brother, Charles (Zachary Bennett). He has sold the family home, and is dumping Maud at Aunt Ida’s for the foreseeable future. Maud pleads and protests, and then moodily waits for her story to begin.
It gets going when Maud does, too. One day at the grocery store, she is nearly knocked over by a hard, loud wind that blows in and in time becomes her unlikely husband, Everett Lewis (Mr. Hawke). A reclusive fish peddler — much of the story takes place on the outskirts of a Nova Scotia town — he lives in a tiny white wooden house on a spit of land with only a couple of dogs and a flock of chickens for company. Having decided that he needs a housekeeper, he posts an ad in the store that Maud surreptitiously steals. She has figured a way out of Aunt Ida’s dominion and straight into a new life.
That life emerges with pinprick detail, framed by windswept landscapes and the bright flowers and birds that Maud begins painting, painful stroke by stroke, on the shack’s walls, steps, pots and windows, vivid manifestations of her will to create. Mostly, it is a life that emerges through the contrapuntal performances of Ms. Hawkins and Mr. Hawke, who, with bobbing heads, mutter and murmur, bringing you into the private world of two outsiders isolated by geography, poverty, disability, temperament and habit. It’s easy, especially, to admire Ms. Hawkins’s technical skill — the private smiles and halting, crooked walk — but the beauty of her performance is that soon you see only Maud.
Directed by Aisling Walsh, with a script by Sherry White, “Maudie” is based — or perhaps, more truly, inspired — by the life of Maud Lewis (1903-1970). A self-taught artist who lived in extreme poverty much of her adult life, Lewis struggled with what appears to have been juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, painting bold, colorful scenes of red trees and black cats with brushes tucked in a tiny, gnarled hand. If you didn’t know her name, you might not know that she was real. The story’s historical basis isn’t announced; there are none of the usual biopic introductions, no text to set the time and place, only some brief, closing documentary images that suggest that the movie has gently prettified the truth.
The film doesn’t cop to that, which doesn’t lessen its appeal. The distancing from the real Lewis registers as a commercial calculation, as does the emphasis on Maud and Everett’s relationship, which here evolves into an achingly moving love story. How much of it is true, including that love’s depths, remains unclear; certainly the movie deviates sharply in sweep and detail from some accounts, most notably Lance Woolaver’s biography “Maud Lewis: The Heart on the Door.” Mr. Woolaver has called Lewis’s life desperate and her husband terrible, and wrote a book that, as he told one interviewer, deflates the myth of her “as a happy little elf in a bright house doing nothing but paint.”