“A warped, horror-tinged character study”
Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a nurse for hire, about to start a new job giving palliative care to ex-dancing star Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). She moves into Amanda’s home, and, having recently developed an intense relationship with God, takes it upon herself to save Amanda’s soul. From there, her obsession with the divine and urge to control Amanda intensifies, and the film develops into a warped, horror-tinged character study of a girl who is just as vulnerable as she is violent.
This is a first-time feature from director Rose Glass, and her strength of vision outweighs any lack of experience. Saint Maud is striking from the start, with a visually delectable mix of sumptuous golds and greens in Amanda’s luxurious home. In the outside world, a subdued palette of greys and blues clashes against the crashing waves and alarming noises of the arcades. Maud is consistently framed in shadow, often found sunken within it, silhouetted against her surroundings or stepping out from it – as though she herself is the dark demonic figure which she is trying to fight.
Morfydd Clark is remarkably compelling in the lead role, and her slight frame belies the strength of the character’s inner convictions. The dark circles around her eyes grow in sync with her instability, and Clark completely commits to the physicality of Maud’s feeling of being possessed by her beloved deity.
Maud paces along the seafront whilst shrouded in a large puffer jacket and curtains of mousy hair, shrinking into the background and enhancing the sense of her isolation. Clark contrasts a highly emotional and internal performance with Maud’s voiceover throughout the film – her endless naivety and dry humour means the viewer can’t help but emphasise, no matter how increasingly unhinged she becomes.
Despite the slow burn, the horror tone is always evident. Everything feels a little off-kilter somehow, and the extremely brief hints at something supernatural lurking under the surface of Saint Maud maintain an ambiguity over whether what Maud is experiencing is actually happening in the real world, or just inside her head.
The film toys with this uncertainty a lot, playing out from Maud’s perspective until the very last shot. Much like films such as Joker or Shutter Island, it forces the viewer to question if that perspective is the truth, or an unreliable narrative based on mental illness. Clearly an outsider, Maud lives alone in a dingy studio flat, harms herself in the name of showing her devotion to God, struggles with social interactions, and her grip on reality loosens as the runtime ticks on.
Speaking after the film screened in Glasgow earlier this year, director Glass was clear about her intention to tell a story about mental illness – but aren’t we past this kind of framing? The kind that perpetuates how those with extreme mental ill health are a violent danger to society and those around them, when in actuality they pose the biggest risk to themselves?
Saint Maud gives us empathy for the main character for sure, and by the end of the film we feel more concerned for her than we are scared of her – but to see her beliefs realised without doubt and her story confirmed as supernatural truth would have perhaps felt even more subversive and satisfying. Those glimpses the film provides into the truly horrifying and paranormal are what lingers most when the credits roll, and so it’s a shame there weren’t more of them.
Singular, striking and extremely well executed, Saint Maud is a treat at first sight – though as the themes and overarching message sink in, it could leave a more bitter aftertaste. Overall, it (and its director) is most certainly one to watch, and with as big an audience as possible. Maud might not succeed in saving your soul, but she’ll certainly shake you to your core.
Writer: Rose Glass
Director: Rose Glass
Producer: Daniel Battsek, Mary Burke, Sam Lavender
Cast: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle
Trailer: (though we’d advise going in cold!)
Images courtesy of Film4.