Director: Rose Glass
Writer: Rose Glass
Starring: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Knight
Genre: Drama / Horror
Maud (Clark) is a reclusive young nurse whose impressionable and naïve demeanour causes her to pursue a pious path of Christian devotion after an obscure trauma. Now responsible for the hospice care of Amanda (Ehle), a retired dancer ravaged with cancer, Maud’s devout faith quickly turns into an obsession with saving Amanda’s soul from eternal damnation, no matter the cost.
Personal obsessions are indeed a strange thing; to third parties it is ‘obvious’ that an individual is acting irrational, but the individual will regard all of their seemingly irrational and obsessive actions as completely rational and logical. One of the main questions posed in Saint Maud is whether what we see is real or very much in our protagonist’s head, and director Rose Glass skilfully makes sure to keep things suitably ambiguous to produce an effectively told film that is full to the brim with tension and intrigue from start to finish.
At just 84 minutes long Saint Maud wastes no time and Glass makes sure that every single scene and line of dialogue counts as we embark on a very dark psychological journey with our protagonist. Unfortunately both the trailer and extremely complimentary quotes included in the marketing may leave some feeling disappointed; while it is nothing unusual for a trailer to predominantly feature the so called ‘money shots’, Saint Maud is much more of a slow-burn character driven psychological horror than the trailer suggests, while though it is certainly overall very gripping and has some memorable individual moments, it is not quite the so-called ‘masterpiece’ as per some of the quotes used in the posters.
Holding it all together is an exceptional leading performance from Morfydd Clark, and she successfully makes her character’s beliefs and obsessions believable. We the audience are able to engage with Maud, not only because of Clark’s superbly committed performance, but also the fact that we can all relate to her on some level. Most of us will certainly not share her religious obsessions, but we are certainly able to understand it. We are given enough information throughout the narrative of Maud’s backstory to appreciate and understand that she is as damaged and troubled as all of us, and turning to religion has become her particularly way of dealing with her internal pain and a way of finding meaning and catharsis – other people will have other outlets that they turn to.
It could certainly be argued that in terms of the narrative trajectory that Saint Maud shares a lot of with any other film about a protagonists losing their way and experiencing loneliness, alienation and disillusionment, whether that be Thunder Road or Joker, but it does prove to be a very effective examine of such a trajectory. However, while it is refreshing for a film to keep things cryptic, I think Saint Maud would benefit from taking its time to develop and reveal that bit more than it does, though this may well have been down to budget restraints too of course.
Though it certainly could have perhaps gone even further, for me it is the depth by which the film is able to explore very human and simple issues at the very centre of what drives the narrative that makes it engaging, even if Maud’s actions may of course sometimes be a little extreme, everything is filled with metaphor, meaning the audience will get out of this film what they put in as there are many different interpretations that can be applied to what are the main themes of the film.
Though it is not immune to the occasional genre cliché or plot hole, this is not just a generic and soulless story of a religious obsessive, her actions open up much more broader and relatable themes such as grief, loneliness, trauma and mental health – and certainly provoke discussion about these. Nothing is ever signposted or obvious, but very much left to the audience’s interpretation, and Saint Maud emerges all the more engaging for this. Though the overall narrative may have a certain amount of predictability, because of Clark’s unhinged performance there are certainly individual scenes which are less predictable, and these are genuinely tense moments.
Saint Maud is also an audio and visual treat for the senses and deserves to be very much seen on the big screen; Glass often gives us intense close-ups of characters as they speak or experience the various plot developments, adding a genuine sense of inescapable claustrophobia. While the film’s setting of an English seaside town in Winter (in this case Scarborough – which is actually very nice in the Summer!) is used very effectively, and a lot of the wide exterior shots capture wonderfully the grim, lonely and desolate feelings these towns often produce at that time of year. This is further enhanced by the neon lights of the town’s amusements (which is apparently a cheeky nod to Taxi Driver), and the feelings of dread and desolation are further complimented by Adam Janota Bzowksi’s effectively unsettling score and Ben Fordesman’s often grey and bleak cinematography.
A sequence in the middle of the film where Maud questions her faith provides some important information regarding what she was like before she turned to religion, but does ultimately feel like unnecessary filler, and as Saint Maud enters its final third a lot of what actually happens is quite predictable. However, I would argue that it is not what happens within the narrative that is the most important thing, but it is actually why it happens that is the most important and engaging element of Saint Maud. It is certainly not quite the masterpiece that has been quoted in its marketing, but Saint Maud is still very much a genuinely engaging film and is perhaps also more effective when analysed as a whole then while being watched.
Though certainly not perfect, Saint Maud is a very skilfully and effectively made psychological horror, and thanks to this and an incredible leading performance is a film that is rich in metaphors and works on many levels.
At time of writing Saint Maud is out in UK cinemas