The feature directorial debut from Rose Glass, SAINT MAUD (2020), following reclusive young nurse Maud, charged with the hospice care of Amanda, her fervent faith quickly inspires an obsessive conviction that she must save her ward’s soul from eternal damnation, whatever the cost.
SAINT MAUD is likely to be one of those that turns out to be entirely different to what you were expecting, while you might prepare yourself to dive into a terrifying tale of possession and disturbing determination, it’s actually much more restrained. However, that isn’t to say it doesn’t play right into the horror genre because it creates such a sharp atmosphere right from the start but it uses it in a more subtly striking way. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is how it balances that horror with its dramatic and spiritual themes and introduces touches of comedy to create a more rounded story that leads down a twisted path. Having such a strong focus on a character like Maud who’s very naïve but troubled opens up endless possibilities, it gives the sense that she’s capable of anything but that whatever that may be, it won’t end well. Those choices in the writing bring a strong, consistent tension that grabs you immediately and holds on tight until the credits roll.
Glass’s direction mixed with Ben Fordesman’s cinematography creates a darkly rich visual, there’s an undefinable quality to horrors set in sea-side towns, it’s as if the juxtaposition of using it against settings of holidays and sunshine creates this instantly unnerving atmosphere. The imagery is striking, capturing such a fantastic level of detail through a haunting stillness, the style almost feels like viewing through the lens of predator stalking prey. Using very quick exaggerations of Maud’s eyes and mouth opening too widely feeds so smoothly into pushing a discomforting tone and the choice to hold back with effects such as this, is one of the most impressive choices that the film makes. It’s also topped by a superb score from Adam Janota Bzowski which taps in perfectly to its chilling nature.
While Maud may be quiet, shy and naïve she creates a very physical role for Morfydd Clark, who gives an utterly memorable performance, that’s far from her previous appearances in period dramas such as THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD(2020). There’s a heavy weight upon Maud through her devout convictions and Clark explores that so perfectly through her body language, showing different sides of her as well as how the character evolves and her movements become more erratic, especially in the eyes which are utterly wild. She effortlessly gets across the initial simple, sweet nature to Maud but cleverly in a way that makes you both sympathize and feel slightly wary of her. Jennifer Ehle is a great addition to the cast, she pulls off the arrogance and sarcasm of Amanda so naturally, the aura she brings is reminiscent of Annette Bening in FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL (2017).
SAINT MAUD is utterly unexpected and unnerving, while a lot of possession and spiritually themed stories tend to go all in, this film cleverly holds back and finds the devil in the details. It’s a gripping and understated horror that brings a discomforting tension and a sharp aesthetic. Clark gives a career highlight performance that will likely bring bigger projects her way and watching her as Maud is simultaneously disturbing and entrancing. The last couple of years have seen some exceptional feature directorial debuts and with this film Rose Glass has clearly earned a place among them.