The horror renaissance has brought us some of the most daring, unique and unpredictable films of recent years and in a time when Marvel and other such franchises dominate the theatres, (as well as a global pandemic playing havoc with release dates and accessibility), it’s a shame that some have gone largely unrecognised. One such example being Rose Glass’ religiously obscure and delightfully twisted, Saint Maud.
Maud (Morfydd Clark), an impressionable young nurse, provides palliative care for Jennifer Ehle’s Amanda, a woman deeply shaken in the face of her own mortality. Questioning and volatile, wrestling with existential dread, Amanda’s prickly nature contrasts firmly with Maud’s relatively timid demeanour. Very much a two-hander for large sections of the film, the dynamic between the two navigates shades of both compassion and resentment, as they float through the dimly lit corridors and aged rooms of Amanda’s oppressive home. A recent Christian convert, seemingly triggered by an ambiguous past trauma, Maud takes it upon herself to save Amanda’s soul before she dies, sacrificing whatever and whoever else to do so. At first, welcoming the offer of absolution and sharing in Maud’s almost orgasmic channeling of God’s ‘voice’, Amanda soon realises her nurse is perhaps not as stable as she once thought.
The film then opens up a little, showing us more of the nameless seaside town in which Maud works, Amanda’s mansion-like house looming from atop the cliffs. Maud’s past becomes somewhat clearer, but Glass refrains from the allure of an explicative flashback and allows the incident to remain shrouded in uncertainty. Subtle cues through dialogue, (like a former colleague referring to her as Katy) and a particularly graphic visual, all allude to the circumstances that brought Maud here, in terms of both her profession and religion. For the most part though, the dialogue is used sparingly, especially with Maud who will go entire ‘conversations’ barely saying a word, her omissions speaking volumes, throwing her state of mind into question for us and those around her. Occasional voice-over goes some way to contextualising the key shifts throughout the film, in my mind a little unnecessary as it humanises Maud in a way that I thought undermined her mystery. From the half-way point (which in this case is only about 40 minutes in) the trajectory of the film steepens and the cracks begin to show in Maud’s once-stoic facade. Her devout Christianity jars with her sexual liberalism and wanton drinking, subverting much of what we thought we knew…
The vast majority of the film rests on Clark’s performance, her range and unsettling bearing are what makes this film a horror rather than a drama. True, the direction, score and cinematography all contribute to this too, but Clark’s poise and presence is the glue that ties all those elements together. Ehle’s offers up a great turn in support and is the only other character with any real weight, her capriciousness in the face of her imminent demise is a sobering affair. Her performance exudes pathos and demands no small degree of pity, even when Amanda is not at her most charming.The aforementioned score by Adam Jonata Bzowski is perfectly balanced and utilised in a textbook manner here. Low drones eat away at your ease throughout the film, constantly teasing a jump scare but following through only occasionally and in devious ways. Then deep, pulsing rhythms as the film begins to ramp up, rising in synchronicity with the ever-increasing extremes of Maud’s behaviour. Ben Fordesman and Marks Towns as the cinematographer and editor respectively, piece together a visual style that compliments the film beautifully. Deploying a few typical horror techniques (tilted, slow-moving cameras, jarring cuts, claustrophobic sets) but also bringing a delicacy and elegance to the work. A particular moment in Maud’s apartment, as firework’s ping outside, is expertly done. It’s a film that is gorgeous to look at yet relentlessly disconcerting in it’s aesthetic.
Ruling – Saint Maud will stay with you long after the credits roll but if you’re easily spooked, that may not be a good thing. After sitting with it for a while and letting it stew, I’m more up on the film than I was in the immediate aftermath, which is reflected in my star rating. In short, a towering central performance + precision writing and direction + exquisite audio-visuals + an 84-minute run time = yes please!