Updated: Dec 19, 2021
The key to the success of Saint Maud (2019) - the hugely impressive debut
feature from British filmmaker Rose Glass - lies in its total conviction. It is an unyielding exercise in the deconstruction of the psyche; the fall and rebirth of the eponymous Maud. She is presented as devout of faith but clearly brandishing spikes, and the impact of her presence owes much to a gruelling turn from Welsh stage actress Morfydd Clark. From the very first moment we encounter Clark’s Maud, you cannot help but be struck by how convincingly off-kilter she is. The film’s (admittedly cliched) opening salvo projects an image of horrific imbalance, but it is the earnestness with which Clark carries herself amidst the mundanity of the everyday that is most affecting. She is coiled and repressed, with an ostensibly courteous manner and cadence that seeks to veil the serpent hiding not-so-carefully behind the eyes.
From a performance standpoint this is undoubtedly Morfydd Clark’s film.
In her professional life Maud is a personal hospice carer, and it is in this capacity that she goes to work for Jennifer Ehle’s Amanda: an ex-dancer, choreographer and one-time societal provocateur, who has dwindled into a failing and increasingly frail echo of glamours past (and she is exquisitely realised by the oftentimes under-appreciated talents of Ehle). From a performance standpoint this is undoubtedly Morfydd Clark’s film, but Ehle’s Amanda is a delightful foil. What begins as a merely curious formality rapidly evolves into a compelling waltz embracing the tenderness of routine, the folly of existentialism and the simple delights of fresh tea; all amidst the canker of impending death. The evolving dynamic between Maud and Amanda is driven always by the chemistry between the two leads. There is affection, desire and a clear sexuality here, and the blurring of lines between carer and client - or victim and prey - is the authentic high point of the film.
The use of religious iconography - Roman Catholicism in this instance - can easily stir the two-headed outrage of cliche and crassness, but an occasional lack of subtlety notwithstanding, Saint Maud remains adroit in its application. It soon becomes clear that ‘religion’ is a purely aesthetic choice; a structural prism being utilised by an individual rapidly coming apart at the seams. Maud seeks to remake herself in a familiar image of literal ‘goodness’, but the unique glare of her perspective betrays an abstract personal reality that is increasingly sinister, and constantly shifting in intensity. Her attempts to reconcile this discord results in habitual instances of what the good Doctor Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy would doubtlessly term ‘medievalism’. It is self-inflicted cruelty, and such acts serve to convey the scale of Maud’s turmoil. She is desperately grasping for meaning, and the physical and emotional endurance her task requires engenders both rage and rebellion. Maud is altered in each interaction she shares with her fellow man, and her transition from resolved to lost to martyred - and back again - is, thanks to the prodigious talents of Clark, ultimately very sad to witness.
The constant, pervading sense of atmospheric dread is palpable and creates legitimate tension.
The reality of Maud’s becoming is potently framed by the lens of director (and writer) Rose Glass. When dwelling in the shadowy corridors and forlorn rooms of Amanda’s stately residence, there is a gloomy, classical feel. To wit: a shot taken from towards the end of the film - a view of an invading devil in white, braced for a final conflict and sighted between the splintered branches of a looming tree - is pure gothic horror. There is always a leering edge to the visuals though, and throughout most of the film the camera lingers close by, tracking and stalking Maud as she drifts through her world. This is entirely by design, and what we behold is the forced perspective of an unstable individual. What intimacy exists is either compromised by violent acts of self-destruction, or viewed in the manner of an interloper indulging in voyeuristic kicks and pursuing opportunistic violation. Her world is cold and detached and there is very little softness, and the shape, colour and energy of Maud’s destined crescendo is evocative of Carrie (1976), only transposed onto the cold greyness of an off-season ‘Britain’ by the sea.
As a gentle criticism, the film doesn’t seek nuance in its narrative; the ebb and flow of dialogue exists to move us from our present destination on to the next without ceremony, and the content of some of the film’s cultural and artistic references lack for both subtlety and originality. However these observations are little more than consummate nitpicking on this writer’s part. The constant, pervading sense of atmospheric dread is palpable and creates legitimate tension. Every ingredient comprising the filmic whole, from the acting and direction, to the caustic menace of composer Adam Janota Bzowski’s score, is hugely impressive. An oft-under appreciated aspect of all genres - horror especially - is the use of sound and music, and the aural impact of Saint Maud is immediate, versatile and successfully sustained throughout. Special mention must be made of the use of the Welsh language within the film, which manages to be beautifully lyrical and entirely distressing at the same time. Such an esoteric addition only adds to the sense that this is a film where every facet is sculpted, purposeful and deliberate. Such a collective endeavour will still ultimately live or die by the zeal and strength of its central performance, and it thus tells you everything you need to know that Saint Maud flourishes in full. It is a fresh and memorable experience; a credit to actor and director alike, and an example of that most precious and infrequently beheld commodity: a brand new and entirely superior modern horror film.