Rector's Letter - October 2017
Scouring the internet for films that a friend and I might go and see, we came across the film ‘Maudie’. The description did not sell it as well as it might: ‘Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins) falls in love with a fishmonger (Ethan Hawke) while working for him as a live-in housekeeper.’ I think I imagined some very gentle romance, during which I thought it possible I might actually fall asleep!
Only halfway through the film did it dawn on me that it was based on a true-life story I vaguely remembered seeing a documentary about. From the opening minutes, I was completely gripped by the story, with its raw emotional intensity. It is about a woman born with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis who has difficulty in walking and using her clenched hands, and was treated as an imbecile and incapable of looking after herself by her family. One day, faced with her brother selling the family home, and a life that amounted to little more than slavery with her aunt, she replies to an advert for a live-in housekeeper, and off she goes. She ends up with a character who is abusive to her – two of the more upsetting scenes involve him slapping her and telling her there is a hierarchy in the house: the dogs, the chickens and then her. In the film version, it is Maudie’s astonishing spirit and refusal to give in that begins to soften Everett a little, and they marry. She turns to paint in her deepest moments of crisis, and begins to paint everything with pictures of childlike naivity: bright colours, simple lines, flowers, birds. And every surface becomes a canvas – the walls, the window frames, the furniture, as much as small cards, so that the whole of their tiny remote house becomes a kaleidoscope of colour and hopefulness. She becomes so famous as a folk artist that even President Nixon buys a painting. At the heart of the film version, two misfits find each other and somehow get along and help each other survive, with a kind of love.
The real story appears darker than I suspect the glossy film version allows – a little romance sways us and there is a danger we ‘forget’ the abusive nature of Everett, in the way that many real victims of domestic abuse try to live with and forget the dark side, convincing themselves otherwise by hanging on to moments of light. Certainly there has been some criticism of the film in this respect: I’m not familiar enough with the real Maud Lewis story to know, and who could see in anyway, into her real situation.
That aside, taking the film just as it was, I came away with a sense of the way Maudie, through her indomitable spirit and strength of character, gives us the hope of survival. What is so astonishing is how though she is physically more crippled and twisted than anyone else, she is the least crippled and twisted in terms of her personality and nature. And she does transform, in part, those around her. The film shows the incredible resilience of the human spirit. And yet, underneath that, I felt too, the very human sadness and suffering that can be hidden away in lives. We often live with deep complexity.
I have sometimes felt the church is hopelessly unrealistic with what it demands of people: it can make us afraid to admit complexity or vulnerability. The danger in this is that it drives stuff underground – people become afraid to be real with one another and admit weakness, frailty or confusion. It becomes about pretending. It is why domestic abuse is hidden for so long – so hard to admit, so hard to believe. The church needs to teach it is OK to be frail – and important to be able to reach out for help when we are vulnerable. That flies in the face of the success culture which is propagated and pressurises all of us! But I suspect it is where liberation lies.
Within the darkness that the film I saw addressed, I felt I was nevertheless reminded by the wonderful portrayal of Maudie, that we are survivors and we can survive. The possibility of transformation in terms of our approach to life is all there. It’s sewn into the very make-up of our being. It’s there in the promises of a God who works within us to bring us more fully alive. A message of wholeness and healing, against a world that so often tells us we can’t; which gives us courage to say, we can, we can.
With best wishes,