NB: Sometimes you just need to work out your frustrations with writing an F-grade, and Rhode Red did just that!
Not to be confused with RedHeadedGirl in Boston, Rhode is a redheaded feminist in Providence. She works in business (aka trade) publishing by day, reads romances and SFF by night, buys more art than her house can hold and grows vast quantities of flowers.
“I’ve tried not to keep this film in my mind, and indeed wrote this review to help excise it, but fear it will haunt me for a while longer because some of the themes were too close to universal for comfort.”
Maud Lewis one of Canada’s best known folk artists (1903-1970). According to Wikipedia, her husband John Lewis bought her her first set of oil paints, encouraged her to paint and then did all the housework so she could spend her time painting. As her fame spread, she sold paintings to such notables as Richard Nixon. She accomplished all of this while living in a tiny shack in Nova Scotia and suffering from the results of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
Sounds like a fantastic person for a biopic, right?
Apparently inspired by the supportive husband theme, screenwriter Sherry White turned it into a ‘romantic biography’, female director Aisling Walsh came on board and Ethan Hawke agreed to play husband to Sally Hawkins as Maud.
The film debuted in 2016 has a 90% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is currently touring art houses in the US including a theatre down the street from me. So I popped over…only to emerge two hours later shuddering.
It took a week to write this review in large part because the film was so horrifying I couldn’t stand to think about it at first.
First of all – trigger warnings like crazy: the film includes physical abuse, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, attempted non consensual sex, sexism and misogyny. Plus, Ethan Hawke doing his damnest to act like an emotionally constipated, illiterate jerk in smelly old clothing the entire time.
Probably because they landed such a big co-star, the husband’s role was expanded from the original script. At least I hope so. Aside from a brief opening when we see Maud being treated miserably by her birth family (which sets up the premise of why a gently-bred woman would leave home in the 1930s to marry a poor fishmonger), the story largely revolves around the husband.
Can you imagine a biopic of a male artist where the story revolves around his wife? Nope, didn’t think so.
First we see the couple’s courtship. The power is entirely on his side. She is tiny, disabled, and penniless, with nowhere to go and no marketable skills. He is built like a bear, he owns a small house, and he makes a living from several jobs including selling fish door to door. He has advertised for a housekeeper. She begs him for the job. He refuses her. Three times.
Each time he kicks her out of his miserable shack. She cheerfully, indomitably comes back and back. Finally he allows her to stay but verbally abuses her housework continually, including telling her she is lower than the dogs and the chickens. When a friend of his drops by and she comes outside hoping for a cheery word, he belts her so hard across the face that she falls and the (male) friend gasps in horror – as did all the people in the theatre around me.
She pulls herself up and tries to smile shakily. “It’s alright.”
At night, he makes no provision for her. She is forced to sleep beside him in his bed, as there’s nowhere else. She is pleasant, because somehow, “It’s alright.”
I’m sure you can guess what happens a few nights into this arrangement. No, there’s zero courting, foreplay, conversation or consent (theatre patrons around me were gasping in horror again.) At the very last moment Maud manages to put him off by revealing a dreadful and deeply personal secret.
She then asks him to marry her. Repeatedly. He continues to be verbally abusive and deeply unpleasant. She must stand waiting while he eats. She must walk behind him on the long road to town. Finally he agrees – apparently from sexual necessity.
The sex when it finally happens is the drab “roll on, roll off with your nightclothes still on” variety.
Apparently bored in her pitiful life in an isolated shack, Maud pulls the cover off a paint can and starts painting small things about the house. Her grumpy husband is not enthused. She then uses her own money to buy paints. He’s still not enthused, telling her to leave the wall around his chair paint-free.
Finally after receiving her first positive feedback from a woman summer visitor from New York City, Maud begins to sell hand painted postcards at the local store. Her husband pockets all the money.
Now we see her painting more and more, finally setting up a ‘paintings for sale’ sign in the street outside the shack. The marriage appears to be doing ever so slightly better – this is indicated when instead of walking behind her husband’s fishcart, she sits in it and he pushes her along. (Note: this is less an act of love than just humanitarian as she has trouble walking and weighs about as much as a thimble.)
Emboldened, at last she turns to him and says defiantly that she is better than the dogs and the chickens. He doesn’t reply, but does silently make her a screen door to help keep dust off her paintings.
Finally she starts getting famous. Newspaper publish articles, and her husband wants her to read out where they mention him. A TV news crew shows up, and her husband is worried about how he appears on screen. American VP Richard Nixon’s office writes to order a painting, and her husband worries what that success of hers might mean to him. Because everything is about him.
We see a few quick spots of him doing minimal housekeeping. (These are so brief I didn’t actually understand he did all of it until I researched later.)
Then we have a quick interlude in which her husband does something improbable in order to show the film audience that he loves her at last.
In the film’s final scenes, Maud’s arthritis makes painting hard, but she continues for the sheer love of it until she is stricken by illness and dies. We then see her husband – because after all the film is more about his emotional arc than her life – finally realize how much he loves her and how he’ll miss her.
At that, the audience all around me sighed happily. Then as the credits rolled they walked in cheerfully out. They had learned the film’s ‘romantic’ message – no matter how talented you are, it’s all about the man. No matter how dreadfully he treats you, if you keep smiling and being nice in return, someday he will realize his love for you. And that’s the big win.
By the way, sadly, according to a new biography, even this dire ‘romance’ was too positive a spin. Apparently Maud’s husband never provided that screen door. He never found her daughter – the daughter herself approached Maud directly (only to be rebuffed.) Lastly, instead of painting through her pain for the love of art, it’s likely Maud painted because her husband forced her to do two paintings per day although they lived in penury while he hoarded the cash.
As her newest biographer notes, it’s doubtful Maud’s husband loved her at all.
My conclusion? Why fictionalize a dark story like this only part way? The message that a woman is a good woman worthy of a film because she cheerfully put up with abuse — that’s awfully damaging. I would have either wanted a film with the truth and damn the ‘romance’, or a wholecloth romantic invention lightly ‘inspired’ by her story.
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