The perseverance of the creative imagination is a saving grace in Aisling Walsh’s “Maudie.” At the beginning of this brilliant, restrained biopic, Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins) is seen bent and deformed by arthritis, torturously manipulating brushes to paint luminous images of nature on the walls of her small, dark room. It is a positive twist on Plato’s cave allegory.
Born in 1903 in Nova Scotia (though the film was shot in Newfoundland) and dying there in 1970, Lewis led a life that was grim and good-natured, her feral genius only discovered by the world late in life. Before that, her greedy brother sold the family home after her parents died, forcing her to live with an oppressive aunt. When she couldn’t stand that any longer, she became the housekeeper for Everett Lewis (a petulant and scary Ethan Hawke), a miserly, brutish recluse living in a tiny house. Eventually, she married him. It is almost like a dark fairy tale, which might partly explain Maud Lewis’s gem-like paintings of her surroundings, transfigured into magical visions so compelling that even Richard Nixon would buy one when he was vice president.
The story offers many opportunities for glibness and sentimentality. Walsh falls for none of them. She enhances the grimness of Lewis’s surroundings, but does not exploit it. She lets poignant images — such as Lewis pulling a little wagon filled with her hardscrabble painting supplies when she needs to relocate — speak for themselves. She does not fill in needless details — when Lewis mentions that the local children throw rocks at her, Walsh wisely refrains from actually showing this. Similarly, Walsh understates both the harsh and the fair-minded behavior of her husband. It comes as an endearing surprise when he relents and lets her pursue her painting. And it comes as a shock when he slaps her in the face.
Instead of emphasizing the obvious, Walsh relies instead on the nuanced and profound performances, especially by Hawkins, who plays a similarly besieged optimist in Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky” (2008). Her Maud knows she’s special and that the world is treating her unfairly. For the most part, she appreciates the irony. Her wry sense of humor and the redeeming luminosity of her paintings turn the joke back on the world.
Directed by Aisling Walsh. Written by Sherry White. Starring Sally Hawkins, Ethan Hawke. At Kendall Square, West Newton. 117 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some thematic content and brief sexuality).Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.