Film Review – Saint Maud
Saint Maud (2021) is the kind of horror film that crawls underneath your skin and sends shivers down your spine. It doesn’t just startle us with jump scares and gore (although there is plenty of that), it also delves into the psychological aspects of its characters. This is a fantastic character study – it’s disturbing, tragic, and endlessly fascinating. The scariest movies are the ones with people doing horrific things believing they are right. Their sense of morality is twisted to the point that the line separating right from wrong has been erased. The most dangerous villains are the ones that believe they are the heroes.
This is a stunning feature length debut for writer/director Rose Glass. In just under ninety minutes of runtime, she exhibits pitch perfect control of tone, atmosphere, and pacing. She establishes tension from the very beginning and only amplifies it as the story progresses. We meet Maud (Morfydd Clark), a young and reclusive nurse who has recently converted to religion. Maud has been assigned to care for Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a famous dancer and choreographer who is dying of cancer and is spending the rest of her days at home. Almost as soon as Maud meets Amanda, she makes it a personal mission to save her soul. Maud disapproves of Amanda’s lifestyle, especially the sexual relationship she has with Carol (Lily Frazer). Where Carol tries to fill Amanda’s remaining time with carefree joy, Maud thinks it should be spent with prayer.
At first, we believe that the central story will be a battle of wills – Maud and Carol fighting over Amanda – but Glass throws us for a loop. This is entirely Maud’s story. She is in every scene, and events are shown from her perspective. The writing adds a narration in which Maud speaks to God almost in conversation. What starts off as exaltation soon turns to uncertainty as Maud’s pleads for salvation go answered. There are quick flashes of a past tragedy that haunt Maud, causing her to live as though in constant punishment. She commits acts of self-flagellation. She kneels on hard bits of candy and places nails in her shoes if only to feel something.
Maud’s loneliness has warped her sense of reality. Combined with an intense sense of faith, she becomes a ticking time bomb of self-destruction. She believes she has a connection with God that goes deeper than other people. When she communicates with the Almighty, her body contorts and writhes about as if she were in ecstasy. She develops plots in her head, convincing herself that she is part of a grander purpose. Comparisons will made to Taxi Driver (1976) and First Reformed (2017) in the way characters start placing themselves in the savior role when one isn’t called for. Maud often walks back and forth in front of an arcade bathed in shimmering light, like some sort of dark avenger on a holy quest.
Maud is not an easy character to pull off, but Clark’s mesmerizing performance balances the good with the bad. Like the movie itself, Clark pulls us in with a slow burn delivery. Her acting is delicately executed. We can’t quite pinpoint when she enters her personal madhouse, or if she was there to begin with. As Maud falls deeper into her delusions, Clark keeps her grounded, using her internal pain and guilt to remain empathetic. In one of the most poignant scenes, Maud tries to connect with a group of people at a bar. Her social awkwardness causes the group to recoil away from her. The resulting look on her face is all we need to know. While Maud goes down a very dark path, we can see how she psychologically arrives at that point, which makes her journey all the more captivating.
Glass’ direction and Ben Fordesman’s cinematography places Maud in a position where escape is not feasible. From the isolation of Amanda’s home, to the narrow back alley of Maud’s apartment, to even the seaside English town of Scarborough, everything is draped in washed out greys, greens, and browns. The aesthetics have a cold, dank feeling, acting as an imaginary cage for Maud’s growing claustrophobia. Mark Towns’ editing plays with the visuals, at times flipping the image upside down to show Maud’s lack of control. The special effects have a subtle but convincing effect, such as when Maud sees every drink start to swirl on its own, like water draining into a sink.
It is rare to see a feature debut this assured, confident, and meticulous. The strength of Saint Maud is in the ability of Rose Glass (and the rest of the production) to stay true to the character and not give them a cheap way out. They take the story to its natural, logical conclusion, not compromising their vision for a neat, tidy ending. In fact, the final moments hit with such blunt force that even now – long after the credits have rolled – that imagery is still burned into my brain. This is a movie that will stick with me for a long time.