Culture

The Book of Henry vs. Maudie

Jaeden Lieberher in The Book of Henry (Photo: Alison Cohen Rosa/Focus Features)
Bad rhetoric from violence-justifying liberals; fearless art from a life-loving real heroine.

Before praising Maudie, the lovely bio-pic featuring an amazing characterization by Sally Hawkins as Canadian painter Maudie Lewis, some commentary on the pertinence of movies and moral responsibility must come first.

This week’s opening of the revenge drama The Book of Henry just after the attempted political assassinations in Alexandria, Va., is not only coincidental but opportune. It reveals the liberal malice that casually infects our popular culture: Henry, the film’s twelve-year-old genius (Jaeden Lieberher) plots to have his mother (Naomi Watts) kill their next-door neighbor, the local police commissioner (Dean Norris), who abuses his teenage daughter. This plot contrivance from director Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) and screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz facilitates the customary pieties of indie movies; through simplistic allegory, it flatters youth for their naïve social awareness, patronizes women with clichés of female empowerment, criticizes gun laws, and champions political action.

All that button-pushing sentimentality converges in a montage in which Watts aims her illegally purchased high-power rifle at Norris, a molested girl expresses her sorrow in a Misty Copeland–style ballet at the school talent show, and a tiny black girl sings “Amazing Grace.” The film goes beyond ludicrous sentimentality into social-justice schmaltz. It parallels the new French film Moka (at Film Forum), a European drama, starring Emmanuelle Devos and Nathalie Baye, which tries to absolve bourgeois revenge as elegant yet winds up bonkers.

This nightmarish spectacle boasts about its principles, which are the ones taken for granted in liberal pop culture. Henry devises his violent solution when the usual methods of social redress prove unsatisfactory; he writes and diagrams the killing in a red notebook, then tape-records, step by step, Rube Goldberg–like instructions for his mother to carry out the deed. Henry’s book of reprisal takes on a weird sanctity, as if it was a progressive’s bible, an “antifa” e-mail, or, perhaps, Mao’s little red manifesto. Henry’s sentimental text is the basis for a Millennials’ version of the old Charles Bronson movie Death Wish, but now it’s liberals who give in to a vigilante impulse. “Violence isn’t the worst thing in the world,” Henry tells his mother. She asks “What is?” He answers, “Apathy.”

That rationalization suits every activist who rejects the legal process or chooses the crazed recourse of taking matters into his own vengeful hands. (Consider the assorted ways many liberals have called for President Trump’s death since his campaign and election.) Trevorrow, Hurwitz, and Focus Features serve up this sadistic pabulum as if they were seriously addressing human issues; they dramatize violent redress just like the mainstream-media pundits who sling violent rhetoric, then refuse responsibility for its influence on youth, mentally ill people, or the authorities. (The mother’s threat “I will go to the FBI! I will go to the newspapers!” is the most surreal movie line of this political year.)

Hollywood and its apologists always want to disavow any connection between media and the real world, as with the 2012 Dark Knight shootings in Aurora, Colo. The Book of Henry glorifies that irresponsible habit through its politically perverse coming-of-age tale. Its moral? A little child shall lead them to self-righteousness and self-destruction.

*****

Maudie is the real Wonder Woman. Instead of a childish fantasy about female empowerment, it details the real-life perseverance of Nova Scotia–based folk artist Maud Lewis (1903–1970) who, despite crippling rheumatoid arthritis, flourished as a primitive painter. Her brightly colored visions done on available surfaces (walls, boards, paper, tin) also adorned the one-room shack she shared with her husband, a local fisherman and recluse.

Sally Hawkins’s and Ethan Hawke’s performances are the year’s best so far because they avoid the idealization that makes Wonder Woman’s presentation of pseudo-feminist virtues so insufferable. Flinty and eccentric, Maud and Everett Lewis are individual figures, not group-think idols. They even fight through each other’s peculiarities — her seemingly helpless femininity, his masculine harshness. She smiles, he scowls. They win each other over. That’s their love story.

Maud has a civilizing influence on Everett. Hawke’s usual low-life bohemian appearance passes for hard-scrabble defensiveness and, without losing intensity, becomes sensitive — the best acting of his career. But it is Hawkins who has a civilizing influence on director Aisling Walsh and screenwriter Sherry White’s sometime precious concept. Hawkins’s ingenuity prevents the film from ever slipping into sentimentality.

Bent over, but not shy, Hawkins’s Maud only looks mentally challenged. She’s full-witted; in fact, she’s cagey. Her face crinkles mischievously when she’s thinking, and she’s always thinking about how to get what she wants. She valiantly goes for what satisfies her emotional needs. After first hiring on as Lewis’s live-in housekeeper, she responds to his gruffness: “Do you want me here or not? I’ll walk right out. Pay me.” She speaks in a sweet, squeaky voice like Blossom Dearie, but her “agency,” as the academics call it, is unmistakable despite a body type and class status that academics snobbishly ignore. Hawkins, who was denied the Hollywood honors her performance in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky deserved, returns to movies with an absolutely original and happily bold performance.

Walsh and White appreciate Maud and Everett’s native wisdom and character. “We’re like a pair of odd socks,” Maud says, and the images of their compatibility — Maud pushed in a wheelbarrow or dancing on her tiptoes atop Everett’s shoes — are both poetic and erotic. Their strangeness is made human and without PC grandstanding or pathos. It’s a more credible marital relationship than the one in the race movie Loving. Their eccentricity sometimes suggests the documentary Grey Gardens done right — that is, illuminated by empathy.

Walsh and White also honor Maud’s artistry by visually coordinating the film’s look with her distinctive palette. The delicate pastels never violate the realism of the Nova Scotia landscapes, a perspective similar to the love-and-nature reverie of Jan Troell’s Zandy’s Bride. And the song “Dear Darling,” by Mary Margaret O’Hara, makes the movie emotionally complete (“Something so full of beauty must be called love”). The genuine wonder in this woman artist’s story is the perfect antidote to the fake-art propaganda of that Wall Street political scarecrow Fearless Girl.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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