Review: Saint Maud
Rose Glass' compelling horror debut features a powerhouse performance from Morfydd Clark
Written by Jonathan Hatfull
“Never waste your pain” sounds like a line from a Clive Barker story, delivered by a Cenobite to a doomed soul. In Rose Glass’ heralded feature debut Saint Maud, the speaker and titular character (Morfydd Clark) is more familiarly clad in the uniform of a health care worker. She has been sent by a private firm to care for Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a dancer with terminal cancer, but make no mistake: while she believes she’s on a mission from above, not below, suffering is a critical element of her journey.
The set-up, which finds the prim, pious Maud trying to convince her charge to shun the pleasures of the flesh and embrace the glory of God, seems to be heading towards a claustrophobic, housebound battle of wills. For Maud, God’s presence is a physical, full-body rapture, and when Amanda hints that she too can feel the Lord’s presence, our protagonist believes that her glorious task is at hand. But as Maud’s determination hits the limits of Amanda’s blend of kindness, pity and curiosity, she must decide whether to fall into despair or initiate a battle for the dying woman’s soul by any means necessary. The dimly lit faded glamour of Amanda’s home becomes a battle ground and Maud’s sparse bedsit a convent cell.
The way in which Glass subverts expectations for how a story like this usually plays out is one of the film’s greatest pleasures so we’ll try and steer clear of anything too spoilery, but Maud is a fascinating creation. She has a will of iron, a sharp tongue, and there’s a bitter ego from her very first prayer. She’s wasted on the infirm and the lost wasting away by the sea (one scene in which she looks on in horror at the patrons of a greasy spoon is wonderfully reminiscent of Withnail and I) and if God isn’t going to give her an opportunity to prove her devotion, she is going to make one.
As you’ve no doubt gathered, there is something wrong with Maud, and although Glass almost never gives us any perspective but hers, we are given clues to what might have happened and what’s led her to this point. The distance mostly allows the film to side-step the more problematic areas of the depiction of mental health, but the total lack of support health care workers receive can’t help but feel a little timely and Clark makes every moment of confusion or self-doubt hit hard.
Ehle has a ball teasing out the ambiguity of Amanda’s feelings, but the film is really a showcase for Clark’s dazzling performance, which is as fascinating in its physicality as it is in its quiet focus. Glass’ eye-catching direction conjures an atmosphere that is at once claustrophobic and unstable, sweeping us up in flights of fervent energy before plunging us into tragic reality. It’s gruelling, despite moments of barbed wit, and it slips occasionally as it builds to its crescendo, yet with Saint Maud, Glass has crafted a compelling horror and a striking debut.
Saint Maud is released in cinemas on 9th October with special previews taking place on 6th October.
Director: Rose Glass
Screenwriter: Rose Glass
Stars: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Knight
Running time: 84mins