Those who have set foot in the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium, a mainstay of the Halifax arts community, know that there isn't a bad seat in the house. Last night, at the opening gala of the 36th Atlantic Film Festival, I put that notion to the test at the very back of the room.
From seat 3 in row HH, which one could call "the balcony's balcony", I watched as Executive Director Wayne Carter welcomed a full house. His remarks echoed strongly what we here at Carbon Arc feel before every screening: there is something magical about an experience that is at once personal and communal. The power of cinema is never more evident than when you laugh or cry along with the person next to you. There was certainly a healthy dose of both during the night's feature presentation of Maud Lewis biopic Maudie.
The film chronicles the life of famous Nova Scotian folk painter Maud Lewis and her relationship with her husband, Everett. A mumbly Sally Hawkins and a grumbly Ethan Hawke star as the couple and, though they both give terrific and touching performances, Hawkins absolutely steals the show.
The Everett of this story is a man of few words and a foul temper, but Hawke is just tender enough below the surface that he never comes off as a monster. His mean streak only serves to further highlight the quiet ferocity with which Hawkins brings Maud's indomitable spirit to the screen. Behind her soft-spoken manner is an unmistakeable brand of Maritime wit and sarcasm, each barb delivered with a kind but knowing half-smirk.
If the acting talent on display is the muscle of the film, the ligaments holding everything together are the sharp direction of Aisling Walsh. Each scene is beautifully framed and lit (speaking at the gala, Walsh hailed Guy Godfree, her cinematographer, as "a genius") and there is a distinct visual sense of humour that playfully complements the script. The tone is deftly controlled, never overplaying a moment for false drama nor shying away from the tough moments in the relationship.
When the film ends with a truly moving moment of wordless reflection from Everett, we're left with somewhat of a design for living that seems handed down from Maudie herself: don't want for much, find the beauty in every season, and surround yourself with artefacts of your joy. Unlike most biopics that feel the need to construct some grand thesis about their subjects, this one is content with simple pleasures found in a simple story. Maudie doesn't need to explain to us why she was great because, of course, we here in Nova Scotia already know.