You know it’s been a topsy turvy year when you make it half way through spooky season without having watched anything remotely spooky! Wanting to address this lack of seasonal content as quickly as possible, I was delighted to see the much talked about Saint Maud showing at my local cinema. Sadly, I feel it is only a matter of time before it is forced to shut its doors for a period once again, so I made the most of things and headed in (apprehensively solo!) to see what all the fuss over this new British psychological horror was about.
Set in a bleak, nondescript seaside town, Saint Maud tells the story of Maud (Morfydd Clark), a private hire nurse who is assigned the job of looking after famous former dancer Amanda Kohl (Jennifer Ehle), now in the mid to late stages of terminal cancer. A recent convert to Christianity, Maud takes it upon herself to care for Amanda not only in a physical way but also in a spiritual way, leading to more and more troubling behaviour as the narrative progresses.
The first thing I’ll say about Saint Maud is that it probably pays not to listen to all of the hype before seeing the film, because I made that mistake and I think my experience suffered as a result. There is no doubt that Saint Maud is an incredibly atmospheric and thematically troubling story, but compared to a lot of top tier psychological horror, it does feel rather rough around the edges. This is to be expected from a feature writing and directorial debut (by Rose Glass), and in the context of the first timer nature of the project, the film is actually very impressive.
Very economical in its story telling, not a second of screen time is wasted in Saint Maud, and whilst this certainly succeeds in keeping the tension high at all times, one does wish that the audience were given a little more time to dwell on certain themes and plot elements. Presented on the surface as some sort of supernatural religious horror tale, the much more interesting readings of the film, in my opinion, come when viewed through the lens of severe mental illness being disguised and excused via religious fanaticism. There is a lot of metaphor across the narrative, probably more metaphor than I even managed to pick up on in a first watch.
In terms of levels of horror, Saint Maud boasts a really interesting approach in terms of imagery and tone, with an almost unbearable sense of tension from start to finish that is punctuated by short, sharp bursts of more graphic content as the film rushes towards a memorably unsettling final twenty minutes. I suppose what I’m ultimately trying to say is that as a stand alone debut feature, Saint Maud is more than proficient, but when you hear something being spoken of as The Exorcist meets First Reformed, whether you want to or not, you expect groundbreaking perfection. This film isn’t that, but it certainly is a nerve jangling journey.
As the titular Maud, Morfydd Clark is an eerie and stoic presence when in control of herself, and an introverted ball of unsettling energy when under the influence. Whether said influence is supernatural forces, plain old madness, or a combination of the two, its up to each individual viewer to decide, but the great thing about Clark’s performance (along with a number of clever directorial touches) is that she makes a range of different interpretations available. Largely a quiet and restrained performance, Clark manages to convey a hell of a lot with just small actions, words and choices. Interestingly, this is the second time in as many weeks in which I have watched the actress playing a young woman on the edge of madness, Clark having played a small but significant role in Eternal Beauty.
As Amanda Kohl, Jennifer Ehle breathes a touch of much needed contrasting energy to proceedings. As alluded to at one point in the script, Amanda’s terminal diagnosis and increased reclusiveness is fast turning her into something of a Norma Desmond, and Ehle exudes a real luxurious star quality that makes her character’s predicament even more tragic. It’s also worth noting that she looks uncannily like a younger Meryl Streep here!
Fast talking, chain smoking, tipple drinking with a penchant for hiring female escorts, Amanda’s character could not be more different to Maud’s new found piety, but the dynamic that Ehle and Morfydd start to create as the cracks start to show and the twists and turns of the plot begin to reveal themselves is really interesting to watch. If anything, I would have liked a little more Amanda and a little less Maud, but that’s just my personal character preference winning over thematic and narrative sense!
Overall, Saint Maud potentially falls into the category of one of those films that is more interesting to talk about and direct afterwards than to actually watch in the moment, but that certainly does not mean that is anything close to boring. A tight, tense affair that blurs the lines between mental illness and religious revelation in such a way that you are never quite sure what kinds of powers are at bay. There is enough in the narrative to support a number of different arguments, which is fun for someone like me who loves film discussion just as much as film watching. Try to go in with as neutral expectations as possible and your judgement won’t be clouded by as much hype as I think mine probably was.