Spoiler warning: the final line of this review discusses an image from the film’s ending.
When it comes to horror, there is nothing more frightening than the human mind. This motto is brilliantly encapsulated in the British writer-director Rose Glass’s debut feature Saint Maud. As with other great religious horror films – including Scott Derrickson’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills in the recent crop, and to some extent Brian De Palma and Kate Shea’s 1976 classic Carrie – Saint Maud’s conjuration of wild daylight visions and spiritual torments skilfully blurs the line between a possible medical condition and outright madness, while also slyly suggesting that the film’s heroine may in fact be possessed. In this sense Glass borrows a page from psychoanalysis by portraying zealous spirituality as psychosomatic, but gives neither the religious dogma nor medicine a final say.
Director Rose Glass
Maud Morfydd Clark
Amanda Jennifer Ehle
In the film’s opening, a young woman, Maud (Morfydd Clark), has suffered an accident involving a patient while working as a hospital nurse. The mysterious incident is a mere flashback but its gory tableau, shrouded in sickly green colours, sets up Maud as a tormented soul with a shadowy past.
The action then follows the tight-lipped, socially awkward Maud to her next job, providing palliative home care for a once-famous, now disabled ex-dancer, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Maud’s dedication to Amanda is absolute, but she’s repulsed by Amanda’s lifestyle, which includes recreational drinking and drugs.
Glass lavishes particular attention to how Maud and Amanda’s relationship escalates, veering from adoration to scorn. Glass’s script shows both women as multifaceted: Amanda, played with cool reserve and airy sophistication by Ehle, is smitten with Maud’s innocence and religious resolve, but also finds her offensively small-minded. Maud, brilliantly acted by Clark, is by contrast all vulnerability and pent-up tension: fawning in one scene, quick to leash out in another. Glass adds sexual jealousy into the mix, when Amanda is visited by a female escort, and Maud eavesdrops on the two, further blurring the line between God’s purported whisperings and tyrannical self-interest.
This rollercoaster of tormented emotions, which feed into and off of dogma, is aided by Ben Fordesman’s astute cinematography which makes the most of tight framing. The camera stays so close to the protagonists, particularly Maud, that it allows us little space for seeing her objectively. In the collapse of perspectival distance lies the film’s rich ambiguity. The close-ups obliterate the world, and lock us into Maud’s point of view, reinforcing the immensity of her feelings, and the extent to which these feelings overwrite and distort her sense of space and time, her notion of right and wrong.
As the images grow from drab and prosaic to more vividly disturbing, Glass slowly chips away at our certainty about how to interpret the story. By the time she rolls out the spectacular finale, in which not just a body blazes on a steely beach but the whole sky, we have plunged so deep into ecstasy, we’re ready to empathise with Maud, perhaps even to dread her wrath.