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 (2005) and Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills (2012) in the recent crop, and to some extent Brian De Palma’s 1976 classic Carrie – the conjuration of wild daylight visions and spiritual torments in Saint Maud 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 respect, Glass borrows a page from psychoanalysis by portraying zealous spirituality as psychosomatic, but gives neither the religious dogma nor medicine a final say.
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 on the way Maud and Amanda’s relationship escalates, veering from adoration to scorn. Her 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 lash out in another. Glass stirs 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 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 to see her objectively. In the collapse of perspectival distance lies the film’s rich ambiguity; the closeups 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 mutate 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, we have plunged so deep into ecstasy that we’re ready to empathise with Maud, perhaps even to dread her wrath.
Originally published: 2 October 2019