Following a young nurse caring for a terminally ill patient, this striking and unsettling debut by British writer/director Rose Glass instantly stands out.
If humanity ever managed to cure or circumvent death — or even just stop being despairingly afraid of our own mortality — the horror genre would immediately feel the difference. Lives are frequently in peril in films that are meant to spook and frighten. Fears of dying underscore everything from serial killer thrillers and body horror flicks to stories of zombies, ghosts and vampires, too. Indeed, if a scary movie isn't pondering the fact that our days are inescapably finite, it's often contemplating our easily damaged and destroyed anatomy. Or, it's recognising that our species' darkest urges can bring about brutal and fatal repercussions, or noting that the desperation to avoid our expiration dates can even spark our demise. Accordingly, Saint Maud's obsession with death isn't a rarity in an ever-growing genre that routinely serves it up, muses on it and makes audiences do the same whether they always realise it or not. In an immensely crowded realm, this striking, instantly unsettling feature debut by British writer/director Rose Glass definitely stands out, though.
Bumps, jumps, shocks and scares come in all manner of shapes and sizes, as do worries and anxieties about the end that awaits us all. In Saint Maud, they're a matter of faith. The eponymous in-home nurse (Dracula and His Dark Materials' Morfydd Clark) has it. She has enough to share, actually, which she's keen to do daily. Maud is devoted to three things: Christianity, helping those in her care physically and saving them spiritually. Alas, her latest cancer-stricken patient doesn't hold the same convictions, or appreciate them. Amanda (Jennifer Ehle, Vox Lux) isn't fond of Maud's fixation on her salvation or her strict judgements about her lifestyle. She knows her time is waning, her body is failing and that she needs Maud's help, but the celebrated ex-dancer and choreographer does not want to go gently or faithfully in that good night. Instead, she'd much prefer the solace that sex and alcohol brings over her palliative care nurse's intensely devout zeal.
Playing out in a hilltop house near the British seaside that could host any number of gothic horror tales, Saint Maud directs plenty of attention towards the push and pull between its two central characters. But Glass isn't solely interested in an adversarial relationship between a pious young woman with her whole life seemingly ahead of her and the ailing hedonist who'll soon have hers cut far too short. The ideological, psychological and emotional dance that Maud forces Amanda into is gripping to watch — and shrewdly and potently handled — but that's just one of the movie's two key clashes. The other: the war raging within Maud herself. Despite her fervour, as well as the stern but feverish way in which she pushes her devotion to her faith upon others, her own story isn't straightforward. Flashes to her past, and to her previous job in a hospital, make it plain that pain, trauma and tragedy all linger in her recent history. That Maud has changed her name from Kate in the aftermath also colours her backstory, as does her alarm when she's approached by a former colleague, and the fact that her sanity just might be fraying.
Set to star in the upcoming Lord of the Rings TV series, Clark also has Love & Friendship, Crawl and The Personal History of David Copperfield on her resume; however, her performance in Saint Maud is career-defining. It's one of the best of recent years by any actor, and it isn't easily forgotten. She's subtle but also severe, two traits that can co-exist in a portrayal this exceptional. She wears Maud's devoutness like a second skin, but also conveys how it itches when anything conflicts with the character's forceful but also fragile status quo. Ehle, who is perhaps presently best-known for Contagion despite boasting three decades of credits to her name, is similarly stellar in a vastly dissimilar way. Amanda isn't an object of pity, or meant to get audiences weeping for her misfortune. Her personality, warts and all, remains steadfastly intact even as illness visibly takes its toll. And, she isn't willing to simply nod, smile and acquiesce to Maud's religious zest out of gratitude, either.
Most filmmakers can only dream of guiding such powerful and delicately layered performances out of their two stars — and in their very first stint as a writer and director — but again, Glass isn't willing to rest easy. In its narrative, Saint Maud is about control on several levels, as its titular figure attempts to use her faith to keep her own life and her patient's impending death in check. Behind the lens, Glass has crafted a work of supreme mastery, including in its vivid imagery and sinister mood. Whether the film is sinking into realism, embracing horror or getting surreal, the cinematography (by The End of the F***ing World's Ben Fordesman) and production design can't be faulted. As the movie steps further inside Maud's precarious existence, nor can the score, which conjures up as much unease as the overall feature. They each contribute to a swirling sea of tension, culminating in a thunderous final shot that really couldn't be more fitting, affecting, astonishing or memorable.
Part of being a horror fan is spotting the genre's webs and threads, and seeing how the best and the worst examples — and everything in-between — build upon all that's come before. Glass evokes Hereditary and Midsommar-esque levels of dread as her anti-heroine is slowly forced to reckon with her beliefs spiritually, emotionally and physically. Focusing on a young woman seen differently by the world around her, her feature recalls The Witch, too. Both as a character study and as a part-religious thriller, part-body horror flick, it also feels like the product of a 70s binge. That said, Saint Maud is firmly its own movie. Awful and average films make you wish you were watching their influences, while excellent pictures leave you ecstatic that their sources of inspiration have given rise to something so stirring — and, as it haunts from start to finish, demanding viewers' reverence, this revelatory feature falls into the latter category.