Synopsis – Follows a pious nurse who becomes dangerously obsessed with saving the soul of her dying patient.
My Take – When I first caught the trailer of writer/director Rose Glass’s feature debut, all the way back in December 2019, I remember being captivated and quickly adding it to my watch-list. With the information that the film won an honorable mention in the best film competition at the 2019 London Film Festival and got picked up for distribution by A24, the indie distributor who has backed similar genre flicks like The Witch, Hereditary and Midsommar, only adding into to the hype.
A hype which found itself fluctuating due to its multiple release date delays, that is until it found itself released in limited theatrical capacity worldwide and VOD last week.
Now that I’ve finally seen it, I didn’t feel that it matched the hype, though I would still count this one a very good film. Actually, calling this a complete horror film itself doesn’t feel correct, instead it more of a psychological character study that wades into exploring the thorny relationship between psychological trauma and religious zealotry, with very brief moments of unsettling imagery.
Though the film employs some well-worn tropes of religion-themed horror, director Glass’s precise style, psychological exploration, and intense atmosphere is what actually turns it into an extremely promising debut. She never rushes for easy thrills, and takes her time to crank up the creepiness and disturbance.
Yes, the film is understated and slow burning, but it drips with an ominous foreboding as it builds towards its anticipated and inevitable violent end.
The story follows Maud (Morfydd Clark), a softly spoken and sweet recently convert to Roman Catholicism who works as in-home nurse living in a small British seaside town. Her latest assignment sees her taking care of Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a once-lauded modern dancer who now isolates herself in her cavernous home while she slowly succumbs to terminal cancer.
While Maud handles her work with clear-cut professionalism and the religious fervor of a recent convert, she also remaining desperate for a sense of purpose, that is until she sees that despite her condition Amanda remains accustomed to a hedonistic artist’s lifestyle, including booze, smoking, and liaisons with younger women, and begins to believe that God has sent her to save Amanda from hellfire and damnation before she dies, hereby testing both Maud’s body and soul to the very limits.
In keeping with most art house horror traditions, the film walks a tight line between the psychological and the supernatural, whilst at its core being a stark character study of a lonely and damaged young girl. A quiet character study with a loud, and brutal excavation of faith. Yes, there are some clear inspirations, but director Glass’ style is quite singular with a carefully considered aesthetic and a strangeness that is used to investigate something that society is desperately trying to get to grips with right now, mental illness.
Loneliness stems from the very root of the film, asking how an individual is supposed to identify with a world which fails to reciprocate any of your values. To make matters worse, Maud practices a unique form of self-harm, burning her hands or putting nails in her slippers to serve as a form of penance.
When she suffers, she suffers entirely. Maud detaches herself from this reality, locked into a tunnel-vision relationship with faith, all leading to a fierce conclusion that dents director Glass’ name into the upper-echelons of upcoming filmmakers.
But what separates this film from other religious horror films is the relationship between its two lead characters, which acts as the glue that holds the film together, forming a narrative as wholly believable as it is engrossing.
Amused and intrigued by Maud’s Godly obsession, Amanda pokes and prods her philosophy. Though Maud may be trying to absolve and convert Amanda, she is doing the very same thing, attempting to tug Maud down from her internal pedestal. Maud’s struggle to save Amanda’s soul transforms into a heroic journey; the farther her actions take her, the more she finds righteousness in her now-answered prayers.
But in spite of these strengths, though, the film’s fault lies in how the film feels eerily, unavoidably familiar, especially when director Glass begins to imbues the film with ambiguity, the chief question being whether Maud’s visions and physical experiences are a matter of fantasy or some genuine religious ecstasy.
Like when Amanda gifts her nurse a glossy book of William Blake art, the baroque imagery of his paintings seem to seep on to the screen. Also when Maud begins to see signs from God everywhere, from the whirling of the clouds on an overcast day to the swirling of dissolving paracetamol in a glass of water. I also did not like the fact that Maud’s hysterical yet vague backstory ends up straining and weakening its impact.
Nevertheless, Morfydd Clark deserves praise for her delicately unsettling lead performance. In a role which could have so easily been ripe for ridiculous melodrama or stereotyping, Clark keeps her performance convincing and pitiable.
She’s well-matched by Jennifer Ehle, who creates a sardonic portrayal of a woman in the last days of her life, mocking Maud’s innate faith in God. She offers a mirage of beautifully timed and perfected reactions, allowing the audience to see Maud in both a subjective and an objective light. In supporting roles, Lily Frazer and Lily Knight are also good. On the whole, ‘Saint Maud’ is a taut chilling thriller that efficiently blends elements of horror with psychological drama.
Directed – Rose Glass
Rated – R
Run Time – 84 minutes