UK (2020) Dr. Rose Glass
If someone can be possessed by Satan, conversely it has to be possible to be possessed by God too, right? If dark forces can compel a person to commit certain acts then the fanatically pious can cause harm by doing the Lord’s work and be just as dangerous, and not in a “killed by kindness” way either.
A young devout nurse named Maud (Morfydd Clark) is assigned to take over the care of a former dancer Amanda Kohl (Jennifer Ehle), who has terminal cancer. Noticing that Amanda still leads something of a hedonistic life by drinking, smoking and paying for sex from a companion Carol (Lily Frazer), Maud takes it upon herself to save Amanda’s soul, believing this to be God’s will.
But as intriguing as atheist Amanda finds Maud’s piety, Maud gets too attached to her patient and her attempts to save Amanda backfire, ending abruptly after a violent row at Amanda’s birthday party. Now out of work, Maud begins to think God has abandoned her and tries to make sense of her aimless path in life, until buried memories of Maud’s past are rekindled, awakening something very disturbing in her quest for redemption.
Labelling this slow burning debut from Rose Glass a horror film is a tad erroneous. Saint Maud is not scary in the traditional sense of endless grotesque or supernatural imagery but does offer a terrifying look at the power of religious belief over a fragile mind. It’s a stark film, very sombre and sober in tone, spending much of this time balanced on a thin edge deciding whether to go full psychodrama or not until the final act.
The themes are not black and white when it comes to religion, therefore we can’t accuse Glass of directly attacking faith, but she is exploring its hold over people and how its teachings are interpreted from person to person. It is all part of an overarching narrative of loss of identity and place in the world, using devout piety as a starting point. It won’t sit well with churchgoers who probably will deem it offensive but it is oddly sympathetic too.
Maud is pretty much the lost sheep of the flock looking for direction, and whilst it isn’t revealed until later, she is a recent convert to Christianity and seems to have taken it all very much to heart. Almost a caricature with her dowdy appearance, spartan bedsit with religious iconography on the walls, and ascetic attitudes, the one thing missing within Maud is happiness.
She may appear convivial and content but there is little joy in Maud’s eyes, absent even when she talks about God, as if she is programmed to recite learned by rote platitudes, as the faithful are often portrayed. She is no Ned Flanders comic figure, her stoicism clearly hides something. Thankfully, Maud isn’t the proselytising type – yet – sparing her withering rebukes from Amanda or anyone else she comes into contact with.
When the piquant Amanda gives Maud a book with the inscription “My saviour”, she feels vindicated in her belief God meant for them to be together. Except Amanda isn’t so serious and their working relationship ends on a sour note, shining a rare sympathetic light on Maud as she is mercilessly teased by the heathen party guests.
Perhaps Maud did bring it on herself by interjecting herself into Amanda’s private life to have her to herself, yet it is played so Maud comes out of it the victim. The question is, does she go the full Carrie and unleash her wrath on them, or does she turn the other cheek and redeem herself another way? That would depend on who we are talking about as Maud isn’t quite as she seems.
Glass was clearly deliberate in making Maud such a straight-laced God-fearing fanatic, for it hides a truth hitherto hinted through flashback images. Before she found God, Maud was in fact Katie, a regular nurse who lived a regular life that saw no abstinence. After bumping into former colleague Joy (Lily Knight), Katie is reborn, if only for one night; the change is startling, but all it does is reopen old wounds and it is Maud who closes them again.
Very little prepares us for how far Maud will go, even if we have rough expectations. Her need to repent means sacrifice and suffering – I defy anyone not to wince as Maud steps into shoes with insoles full of upturned drawing pins digging into her feet! Earlier, I used the word “possession” which is how Glass chooses to depict Maud’s faith. In a couple of scenes, Maud often goes into an orgasmic spasm when talking about God; later, Exorcist style levitations are replicated to further perpetuate this image.
Now the film gets scary but much of this is through the sublime performance of Morfydd Clark, committing herself physically to creating an otherworldly character whose ethereal qualities are terrifying without special effects. She navigates the changes in Maud/Katie subtly, resisting the urge to overact in the finale to keep the febrile edge of her character intact. Jennifer Ehle is almost unrecognisable as Amanda, but proves a worthy foe for Maud.
Despite the horror motifs, special effects don’t appear until late in the film, prior to this it is a combination of lighting and acting that beings out this eeriness, as does the muted colour palette and sparse musical score. Not all arty camera tricks work, though one where Katie stumbles out of a lit doorway in the night shot at an obtuse angle tells a vital story.
Saint Maud is a bold debut, maybe too slow for mainstream audiences and not scary enough for horror fans, making its appeal somewhat limited. At just 84-minutes, it says what it has to say whilst provoking discussion as to whether it is criticising religion or raising concerns about mental health. Either way I guarantee that nobody will forget the hauntingly tragic final image.