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Dark but uplifting: Sally Hawkins shines in delightful biopic ‘Maudie’

Life was cruel to Maud Lewis from the start.

She was born in poverty in the rough and unforgiving Nova Scotia of the 1930s, and suffered from the effects of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis throughout her days. Her hands were bent at an odd angle, she was permanently hunched over, and she walked with a pronounced limp.

After Maud’s parents passed away, her greedy, selfish brother sold the family house and pawned Maud off to their mean-spirited spinster aunt, who barely tolerated Maud’s presence in her house.

Even after Maud found work as a live-in housekeeper for a misanthrope fisherman and eventually married him, she often felt unwelcome, unwanted and abused in her own home.

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This might sound like the blueprint for a bleak and depressing period piece, but in fact “Maudie” is one of the most beautiful, life-affirming, uplifting movies of the year, capable of moving us to tears of appreciation for getting to know the title subject.

Inspired by true-life events and directed with grace and style by Aisling Walsh, “Maudie” features a nomination-worthy performance from the versatile British actress Sally Hawkins (“Blue Jasmine,” “Happy-Go-Lucky”) as Maud, who is shunned by the community (kids throw rocks at her just for the fun of it) and treated as a freak because of her physical condition and her eccentric ways – and yet maintains an indomitable spirit.

If Maud is the beneficiary of a simple human kindness, or looks up and marvels at a cloud formation, those few minutes of light will make up for hours upon hours of being ignored, mistreated or forgotten by the world.

Decades removed from his sometimes cloying, sensitive leading-man days, Ethan Hawke has turned into one of the most consistently interesting character actors in movies today. Hawke delivers one of the best performances of his career as Everett Lewis, a hulking and surly fish peddler living on the edge of town in a one-room house, with only his dogs and chickens to keep him company. After Everett tacks up an ad in the town’s general store for a live-in housekeeper, Maud walks miles to his house and says she’ll take the job.

Within hours, Everett has fired Maud and told her to get the bleep out of his house, but she refuses to leave, and he can’t be bothered with dealing with that. So she stays.

When Maud isn’t scrubbing the floors or preparing meals for Everett or sweeping the dirt out of the house, she paints – small, simple, brightly colored works depicting cats and flowers and trees and birds. Clutching the brush with fierce determination, she uses the odd piece of wood or the kitchen wall or a window as her canvas.

Everett is not a good man. He tells Maud she ranks below the dogs and the chickens in order of importance to him. He strikes Maud because she has the temerity to speak her mind in front of the closest thing Everett has to a friend.

Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke star in the independent film “Maudie.” (Courtesy of Mongrel Media)

Eventually, though, Maud brings out something resembling humanity and heart in Everett. They get married. He goes from tolerating to supporting her love of painting. Somewhere in the depths of Everett’s narrow-minded thought process and granite heart, he knows he needs her far more than she needs him.

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Maud’s simple but striking images catch the eye of an upscale New York woman named Sandra (Kari Matchett), who spends her summers in Nova Scotia. Sandra offers $5 for one of Maud’s paintings. Everett nearly chokes on his soup.

Eventually, Maud’s paintings – and her unique story – draw the attention of magazines and television crews, turning her into something of a celebrity. Some of this might seem far-fetched, were it not that it actually happened.

(As is the case with virtually every biopic ever made, there are some discrepancies between this fictional work and what is known about the real life and times of Maud Lewis. That’s why they call it poetic license.)

Sally Hawkins is an immensely talented actress, but at times I’ve found her work to be a little too self-consciously demonstrative. With “Maudie,” however, even though Hawkins is given the kind of role (a challenged character in a historical biopic) the Academy loves, the kind of role that practically begs for histrionics, Hawkins never overplays it. She’s simply great.

Hawkins disappears into the performance, capturing Maud’s physical limitations but also the light in her eyes, the sly humor in her observations about life, and her gift for seeing the greatest beauty in the simplest things.

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