• Sally Hawkins plays artist Maud Lewis in ‘Maudie’. (Mongrel Media)
She’s delivered some of the most enthralling and emotionally devastating performances of the last decade. So, what’s her secret?
By
Anthony Morris

23 Jun 2019 - 5:45 PM  UPDATED 23 Jun 2019 - 5:45 PM

There are two ways Maudie could have gone wrong, and Sally Hawkins avoids both of them. She plays real-life Canadian artist Maud Lewis, and as the film starts she’s been cast out of her home by her older brother. It’s the 1930s and she’s a nervous introvert with arthritis who at the same time enjoys sneaking out and dancing; her brother’s disdain seems as much based on her refusal to fit into a straightforward category as his inability to control her.

It’s the kind of showy role that actors love, but nobody else could have played Maud like Hawkins. Over a career spanning two decades (she started out as an actress on the UK stage; her first major film role was in Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing in 2002) Hawkins has become best known for two things: playing characters that are vulnerable, and playing characters that have an inner strength. Okay, three things: after appearing in two Godzilla movies and being nominated for an Academy Award for having sex with a fish-man in The Shape of Water, she’s also become Hollywood’s expert monster-tamer. (She played the mum in the two Paddington Bear movies, but he’s not exactly a monster.)

Strength and vulnerability are usually presented on film as opposites; characters move from one state to the other. Most crowd-pleasers are built on the idea that people go from weakness to strength (unless they’re bad guys, who go the other direction). In Maudie, Hawkins shows off just what makes her so compelling to watch: she refuses to make her characters choose between vulnerability and strength.

This isn’t a surprise. 2010’s Made in Dagenham helped make her a star by letting her do the exact same thing. It’s the late 60s and at a Ford factory in the UK the female staff are all too aware that they’re being paid less than the men. But when they’re dismissed as unskilled labour, that’s it: they’re out on strike – against the wishes of their male union reps, who seem just a little too cosy with the bosses. As mum, factory worker and strike leader Rita O’Grady (an amalgam of a number of real-life activists), Hawkins steps up as she faces down increasingly strident opposition both at work and at home.

It’s a feel-good story, and on one level Hawkins’ performance totally suits the bright colours and big hair of the swinging 60s. But there’s a steel underneath her bubbly surface that ensures the film never takes the sexism and discrimination of the period lightly. There are real stakes here, and Hawkins makes it clear there’s a heavy burden that comes with standing up against the system. It’s her quiet determination that gives this film the gravity it needs to work. It’s by showing what it takes to push forward that we understand what she’s pushing against.

On the surface, 2016’s Maudie couldn’t be further apart. Sent to live with her overbearing aunt in Nova Scotia, Maud escapes by taking on a housekeeping job with the grizzliest man in town, the perpetually scowling fish peddler Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke). Moving in with him scandalises the locals – his house is so small everyone knows they must be sharing a bed despite not being married – while she constantly struggles against his angry reluctance to accommodate her smallest requests.

One day, while attempting to tidy up, she paints a shelf. He only tolerates her efforts as long as she does her chores first. Gradually they come to an arrangement, and while things never exactly thaw between them, they find a path to happiness around each other. She paints, even as her arthritis worsens. They get married, and she finds some fame for her art – fame Lewis doesn’t try to understand. But with that fame comes a past that isn’t quite done with her yet.

Maud’s whole life is about scraping what joy she can from a situation that’s less than ideal; in Made in Dagenham, Rita has to turn her world upside down because the status quo is unbearable. Both films are about women dealing with tough situations, but Hawkins doesn’t play either of them as simply people learning to be strong. They don’t even discover a strength they didn’t know they had; instead, their vulnerability is as much a part of them and a part of why they triumph as their strength.

In her work, Sally Hawkins shows us something we know is true in our own lives: people are never just one thing. They don’t change simply because their situation changes. Rather, the situation brings out new aspects of them. Hawkins’ magic is that she can play one thing and still suggest the other – rather than being opposites, strength and vulnerability are intertwined.

Time and again, her characters don’t simply go on a journey from one state to another. Rather they turn in front of us, showing us one facet then another of something that, thanks to the depth of her performance, seems as if it was always there.

Maudie and Made in Dagenham are now streaming at SBS On Demand:

Maudie

Made in Dagenham

Follow the author here: @morrbeat

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