Though there are many good biopics and films based-on-a-true-story (and many bad ones), I have long maintained that it is almost impossible to make a great one. Some have transcended. Alan Pakula’s 1976 “All the President’s Men,” David Lynch’s 1980 “Elephant Man,” Mike Nichols’s 1983 “Silkwood,” Milos Foreman’s 1984 “Amadeus,” Jim Sheridan’s 1989 “My Left Foot,” Martin Scorsese’s 1990 “GoodFellas,” Roman Polanski’s 2002 “The Pianist,” Terry George’s 2004 “Hotel Rwanda,” Sean Penn’s 2007 “Into the Wild,” Julian Schnabel's 2007 "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," Danny Boyle’s 2010 “127 Hours” come to mind. Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” which opened last week, is another. Considering the glut of based-on-a-true-story films these days, however, the chance that one will stand out in the crowd is rare.
The problem is one of artistic license, which writers (take Shakespeare’s history plays, examples par excellence) and filmmakers used to have until 1989, the year Oliver Stone was slammed for “Born on the Fourth of July.” The film initially met with a warm critical reception, but Diana West’s 1990 article for The Washington Times, “Does ‘Born on the Fourth of July’ Lie?,” was typical of the ensuing onslaught. Based on the autobiography by Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic, who co-wrote the screenplay with Stone, “Born on the Fourth of July” encountered a barrage of criticism for everything from collapsing multiple characters into one or inventing characters altogether to outright falsifying the record. More recently, Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” (2014) faced similar reproofs. “Selma” confronted a further challenge in that, since it was not based on autobiography, the personal story had to be conjectured while the overarching historical narrative was expected to be accurate.
Since 1990, film makers have deployed variously worded disclaimers to avoid a torrent of accusations of inaccuracy. Closing credits end with statements along the lines of: "This story is based on actual events. Some incidents, characters and timelines have been altered for dramatic purposes. Certain characters may be composites or fictitious."
|Sally Hawkins as Maud Lewis in "Maudie"|
Of the protagonists in the films singled out above, none is a personality with whom we share an intimate, albeit public, familiarity. The better we know the public figure, the more iconic the personality, the more artistic license becomes proportionally constrained. Franklin Schaffer’s 1970 “Patton,” Michael Apted’s 1980 “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (Loretta Lynn), Richard Attenborough’s 1982 “Gandhi,” Julie Taymor’s 2002 “Frida” (Frida Kahlo), Taylor Hackford’s 2004 “Ray” (Ray Charles), Bennett Miller’s 2004 “Capote,” James Mangold’s 2005 “Walk the Line (Johnny Cash), Olivier Dahan’s 2007 “La Vie en Rose” (Edith Piaf), Gus Van Sant’s 2008 “Milk” (Harvey Milk), Steven Spielberg’s 2012 “Lincoln,” James Marsh’s “The Theory of Everything” (Stephen Hawking), Danny Boyle’s 2015 “Steve Jobs” – superior films all and each received – deserved – critical acclaim. One wonders, however, to what degree one’s own and the critics’ enthusiasms are based primarily on the degree to which the starring performers pass as the actual historic personage. Honestly, have you ever seen a satisfactory portrayal of JFK? (Todd Haynes’s 2007 “I’m Not There,” in which Bob Dylan is portrayed by a myriad of actors and actresses, is a notable – and admirably creative – exception to this rule.)
All that by way of introduction to Aisling Walsh’s film “Maudie.” The Irish director is best known in Britain for her BAFTA TV Award-nominated work on the two-part miniseries adaptation of Sarah Waters’s Man Booker Prize-nominated novel “Fingersmith” (available on Netflix DVD), also starring Sally Hawkins.
Though based-on-a-true-story, “Maudie” follows the largely imagined life of Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis. The bare bones of Maud’s story are just that – bare. Born in 1903 to John and Agnes Dowley in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Maud was diagnosed early on with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Her mother taught her to draw Christmas cards to sell. John died in 1935, Agnes in 1937. When her brother sold the family house, Maud was sent to live with her aunt in nearby Digby. There she met Everett Lewis, an itinerant fishmonger whom she married shortly thereafter in 1938. He bought Maud her first artist’s brushes and paint. They reportedly shared a devoted relationship, living in Everett’s nine by ten and a half foot house in Marshalltown, from which Maud sold paintings that gained notoriety in the 1960s. She died in 1970; Everett lived until 1979.
Sherry White wrote the screenplay for "Maudie," and in an interview for the Halifax Chronicle Herald (February 26, 2015) says she “became frustrated when [Maud’s] story seemed like a biopic.” White explains that “[I]t was feeling like a movie of the week. Eventually, I focused on the love story…. …. I wanted to believe it was a love story and they were two outsiders who found each other.” Walsh and White benefited from a dearth of biographical information, detail that might otherwise shackle their narrative. They were free to construct a story for Maud and Everett to inhabit as characters, and they took full advantage of dramatic license to create a compelling narrative with a rich backstory for Maud that informs the middle-aged character we meet onscreen. White wanted Maud to be a “character who is determined to have a life of her own, determined to find happiness despite the fact life is challenging for her and beats her down. She’s infectious in how she sees [the positive in] the world….”
Sally Hawkins plays Maud, Ethan Hawke plays Everett and, as the film dictates, they should be understood as characters – not as literal incarnations of actual people. Much of the power of Hawkins’s performance derives from the fact that she refuses to play Maud as a naïf. Maud is quiet yet headstrong, demurring yet shrewd. She has had the misfortune to grow up with a physical infirmity that others have misattributed as intellectually deficiency. The screenplay depicts Everett as an illiterate loner, and Hawke rises to the challenge of maintaining a coarse, churlish exterior while revealing a man capable – albeit cautiously and despite an occasional sadistic outburst – of devotion and genuine affection.
|Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins as Everett and Maud Lewis in "Maudie"|
Ever the keen observer, when it becomes apparent to her that Everett does not always keep track of his fish deliveries, Maud offers a system for keeping track without suggesting any failing on Everett’s part. In response to Everett’s reluctance to marry (an attitude apparently not shared by the real-life Everett), Maud signs her paintings “Maud Lewis” well before they tie the knot. She persists, and in his own way, he does, too.
White says, “You don’t normally see love stories about characters who are not the typical beautiful people.” This is so true, especially of American cinema, and one of the reasons foreign films are often so refreshing, absent as they sometimes are of overly pretty people. It took an Irish director, a Canadian writer, and an English actress to shape in “Maudie,” not an eccentric caricature, but an indelible portrait of endurance and generosity of spirit.
In selected theaters.
Home Entertainment Unofficial Release Dates:
Digital/On Demand (VOD) September 2017
DVD/Blu-Ray October 2017