By Sarah Howes, Third Year, Film and Television
Rose Glass’s debut feature film, as both writer and director, is a tragic horror with spectacular unsettling images and a haunting emotional core.
Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a private palliative care nurse who has just been assigned to look after a new patient – hedonistic former dancer Amanda Kohl (Jennifer Ehle). Maud has recently converted to Christianity, following a mysterious traumatic incident in her former job at the local hospital, and is therefore desperate to prove herself to her new-found God through her work.
Having claimed Mary Magdalene as her patron saint, Maud sets out to assert her own repentance and renewal by ‘saving Amanda’s soul’ before her impending death from stage four lymphoma. However, when Maud’s misconstrued plans go awry, her obsessive behaviour under the guidance of a manipulative supernatural force becomes increasingly dangerous.
Morfydd Clark’s portrayal of this earnest but misguided young woman is arrestingly heartfelt. Frequent insights into the character’s internal monologue present us with a sincere character who – despite her misguided sanctimony and unnerving zeal – we can feel immense sympathy for.
Often shown alone (for example, in her tiny bedsit or walking against the grey skies of her cold seaside town) Maud is presented as a painfully isolated and lost character. She desperately turns to her version of religion with an aching hope of finding definitive meaning in her life. Whilst I wish to avoid labouring a point about our current ‘unprecedented times’, it is impossible to ignore that the film’s themes of isolation and loneliness will feel especially meaningful to many now and add a more personal thread of fear alongside the greater supernatural horror. Yet Clark’s performance is also impressive when it comes to the film’s more physically dramatic scenes; she gasps and contorts in an intense euphoria at what she believes to be the presence of God, in tense scenes that grasp the audience’s attention.
Maud is a sincere character who – despite her misguided sanctimony and unnerving zeal – we can feel immense sympathy for
Whilst the film is certainly centred on Maud, Ehle’s Amanda is also mesmerising. Initially described as “a bit of a cunt” by her previous nurse, and almost constantly smoking despite Maud’s evident disapproval, Amanda is almost comically proud and self-centred. Yet, at other times she expresses curiosity about Maud and concern for her, whilst dealing with her own gruelling dread as she approaches the end of her life. The relationship between Maud and Amanda is interestingly nuanced, with a tender sense of intimacy building between them as Maud begins her mission, disrupted by tensions surrounding Amanda’s younger girlfriend, Carol (Lily Frazer).
Whilst there are some delightfully shocking bloody scenes in the film, perhaps the most impressive horror is that of more tangible pain – sharp scratches, a burnt hand, a picked wound. Small details are magnified and made monstrous by careful close-ups, and the sound design amplifies every unnerving noise. Even something as innocent as tomato soup, gently boiling in a saucepan, is made to appear nauseating as tension begins to build from the very opening shots. In a different film, the huge old-fashioned cliff-side home where Amanda lives would be perfect for a classic haunted house; Saint Maud may not be a ghost film, but this setting effectively adds to the eerie atmosphere. The soundtrack also deserves a mention, as its swelling tones sweep us up into the film’s most gripping moments.
Saint Maud confidently confronts a terrifying combination of supernatural and existential fear, both on a cosmic and personal level. It thrives on ambiguity – is Maud really being guided by divine intervention, demonic possession, or delusion? I was entranced by this beautifully devastating film which, within a tight runtime of just 84 minutes, is both thrilling horror and tragic drama. If you are able to grab a face mask and some hand sanitiser to head out to your local cinema, then this is a stunning film to make it worth the trip.
Is Saint Maud your favourite horror film of 2020?