Putting Maud and arthritis into the frame

After opening the Dublin Film Festival, director Aisling Walsh hopes to bring her story of an artist battling arthritis to the world, writes Esther McCarthy.

Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins in Maudie, the true story of artist Maud Lewis, directed by Irish filmmaker Aisling Walsh, left.

She was the low-key, quirky artist whose paintings, sublime in their simplicity, made her beloved in her native Canada.

Now an Irish filmmaker is hopeful that she can help make the work of Maud Lewis celebrated throughout the world.

Lewis, who sold painted cards out of her remote home in Nova Scotia, defied crippling rheumatoid arthritis, which she developed in childhood and suffered from throughout her life, to become one of Canada’s most loved folk artists.

Irish director Aisling Walsh is bringing Lewis’s story to the big screen in an intimate drama, Maudie, starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke, that will open this year’s Audi Dublin International Film Festival. The film also focuses on Maud’s difficult marriage to her husband, Everett.

ADIFF, which will feature scores of anticipated Irish and international features and shorts, and Walsh, for one, is looking forward to bringing her film home for the opening night.

“It’s a couple of years since I screened a film in Ireland, so it’s rather special for me. I’m looking forward to it very much,” said the London-based filmmaker, whose credits include acclaimed Irish film Song For a Raggy Boy and the award-winning TV series Fingersmith and Room at the Top.

“It’s interesting, you spend so long making a film, a long time putting it together in the cutting room and trying to get it up to it’s ‘flying best’ as I call it, then you try to bring it out into the world.

“The response has been kind of universal. It’s amazing how people respond to it. They laugh, they cry, they go on that journey. That’s really satisfying.”

Walsh hopes that the film will help bring Maud’s story and work to a wider audience.

“She’s well known in Nova Scotia where she’s from, in Toronto, Vancouver and in America as well because people travelled and holidayed quite a lot in that part of the world, would have stopped outside the house and bought her work.

“But otherwise, like a lot of women artists she isn’t terribly recognised. It’s amazing that she’s not. It’s nice that this will hopefully make her a little more well known in the world.”

Walsh, who’d trained as a painter before forging a career in film, had been interested in making a film about an artist for almost a decade and was watching out for the right project.

When Sherry White’s script landed on her desk, she was hooked. “I’d looked at making a film about a painter, there were one or two stories I was interested in. I did know her work, I’d seen these pictures.

“Then I thought of Sally and thought it could be a really good opportunity for us to work together again, we’d been trying to find something to do together (since collaborating on the mini-series Fingersmith).

“This just seemed to be right. And that story — I was just fascinated by the portrait of that marriage, that love story. I thought that I could bring something to it, that if you’re lucky could be kind of magical.”

As well as her art, the film focuses on Maud’s complicated marriage to Everett Lewis, a temperamental man with whom she had a loving but often-fraught relationship.

There are dark details within their union, and in the wrong hands this tale of an imperfect romance could have rung less true. “A lot of it is two people in a room, in a landscape together. Would I have done it ten years ago? No, I’d probably have run for the hills. That (the relationship) is quite complex in its own way because you’ve got nowhere to hide. It just really spoke to me, so much that I thought I really want to make this film.”

Maud had severe arthritis that impacted greatly on her movement, but Walsh and Hawkins never characterise this in a way that feels mawkish or manipulative.

“People who have disabilities have disabilities,” says Walsh. “They live with them. They don’t think of them as disabilities. That’s what you’ve got in life and you get on with it. Apart from the pain she had, which apparently got quite bad in later life, that was how she was and who she was.

“It’s really important that you don’t think about it, but that it’s there, that’s who Maud is. She’s lived with it all her life. I thought that was an interesting way to play it, and Sally really wanted to do that too.”

Though Walsh has lived in London since moving to the city to study three decades ago, she still considers Dublin to be home and spent almost six months here last year, largely working on post-production on the film.

“I came here originally for three years as a student and never thought I’d be here this long. I always consider Dublin home,” she observes.

“If you’ve lived in London like I have for thirty years, you get used to that scale and size and there are a lot of things there that I love.”

Though she considers the recent Brexit vote “a shame” she doesn’t see herself leaving London permanently. “There’s a point where you realise that it’s going to happen. It’s interesting, I know people who voted to come out and people who desperately wanted to stay.

"Maybe they have to be out for a while to remember why it would have been good to stay. I think it’s a shame because they’re a very strong voice in Europe.”

  • Maudie opens the Audi Dublin International Film Festival tomorrow

Five of the best: Highlights of the Dublin Film Festival

  • Handsome Devil: The latest feature from director John Butler (The Stag) has been generating serious heat ahead of its first Irish screening. Described as a coming-of-age drama set in a Dublin rugby-mad school, the story centres on a bullied outsider and a macho athlete, forced to share a room as boarders. Andrew Scott and Moe Dunford star.
  • The Farthest: Festival director Grainne Humphreys has singled out Emer Reynolds’ “simply stunning” documentary in advance of the festival. It tells the story of NASA’s Voyager missions, which have travelled more than 22 million miles since leaving earth.
  • In Loco Parentis: In what looks set to be a very strong year for Irish documentaries, In Loco Parentis debuts following rave reviews at Sundance. It follows a year in the lives of two inspirational teachers at Ireland’s only primary-age boarding school, Headfort.
  • Unless: Catherine Keener heads the cast of Alan Gilsenan’s Irish/Canadian co-production. It centres on a mother’s relationship with her daughter, who has dropped out of school and spends her days outside a Toronto department store.
  • Sanctuary: Len Collin’s drama, based on the award-winning play from Galway’s Blue Teapot, tells the story of a couple who sneak out of their day-care centre to explore their romance.

The cast is almost entirely made up of actors with intellectual disabilities.


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