In keeping with what I’ve said beforehand, every year seems to have one standout horror film that’s a critical darling if a little iffy with audience; The Babadook, The VVitch, and Hereditary. For 2020 that horror film – aside from the obvious plague that’s screwing us all over – seems to be Saint Maud, and since the majority of these critically acclaimed horrors I’ve absolutely loved, I wanted to see if this would be a winner. And by God it was, this is a chilling, disorienting, and disturbing look at faith and the dangers of unchecked insanity.
Set in a little shitty seaside town somewhere in Britain, the film follows Maud (Morfydd Clarke), a nurse who has recently left the NHS for unexplained reasons and has taken up with a Private Hospice Facility to look after people in their final days; her client this time is ex-dancer Amanda Kohl (Jennifer Ehle), suffering from end-stage lymphoma and minor alcoholism. During their time together, Maud, a recent but devout convert to Catholicism, becomes convinced that she has been sent to save Amanda’s soul, but the more she tries the more Amanda pushed her away, leaving Maud to question what is God’s true plan for the both of them.
I’m holding some of the story back, because there’s a turn in the 2nd act that moves the story away from what you think it is, and more towards a character study of Maud and where her mind is during this time of her life. It’s a brilliantly put-together piece that never gives you full answers as to what’s happened and what’s going on but present you with just enough to follow along, even if you don’t fully understand. There’s a level of ambiguity when it comes to Maud and what she sees that I can already tell will make the film worth checking out again to see what you can make out as real, and what is just her delusional mind trying to comprehend.
This being a character piece, Maud overshadows everyone but the supporting cast do their best to keep up, small roles have their place here and help to shape the world this film finds itself in. Amanda’s much younger girlfriend/escort Carol (Lily Frazer) has little time for Maud’s piousness and openly flaunts her sexual relationship with Amanda looking for a rise, while Maud’s former co-worker Joy (Lily Knight) hints at there being more to Maud’s past than she’s letting on and seeing that Maud is troubled but being too unnerved to do anything about it.
Amanda herself is an interesting sort, she’s clearly troubled by her impending death but is trying desperately hard to hide that, putting on a pained smile, drinking her troubles away, all the while her balding head and insistence of making herself up shows how hurt she is and how much her vanity refuses to leave her alone. Ehle has this great ability to balance Amanda’s genuine friendship with her underlying bullying, you can never tell how much she actually believes in what Maud is telling her about God and her relationship with him , and how much is just her going along for shits and giggles. It’s a difficult line to cross, and being arguably the film’s antagonist whilst fighting a losing battle with cancer could’ve sent mixed signals, but she’s a wonderfully realized creation and her place in Maud’s story works wonders for both characters.
But this is Maud’s film and she is phenomenal, if nothing else Clarke needs to breakout big time from this because she delivers one of the best female horror performances since Kathy Bates in Misery. Much like Amanda, there’s a lot you can’t pin down on Maud, and the further the film goes on the more you find yourself wondering if you should pity her or fear her, most notably due to her religious dogma. Following on from a traumatic event at work, Maud found God and now believes that he speaks to her through feelings in her body when she prays, creating something that blends unknown terror with orgasmic ecstasy and Clarke’s ability to portray both through her facial expressions at the same time was one of the earliest indications that she was going to carry this film into greatness. She’s a fantastic character because you can tell she wants to help people, she wants Amanda to be saved but her methods are disturbed, her old-testament ways of “Belief Through Misery” – her mantra being ‘Never waste your pain’ – paint a horrifying picture of a woman at war with herself, her self-destructive path through the 2nd act is ugly to watch but impossible to look away from. Worth of all, because you can’t tell how much of what Maud sees is real and how much is just her delusions taking shape but either one is dangerous and that uncertainty drives a lot of the horror in the story and in her character.
Whilst Clarke takes on the face of the film, the brains belong to newcomer Rose Glass who smashes onto the horror circuit and takes no prisoners, for a debut feature this is a brave film, tackling mental illness, loneliness, and unsafe devotion all in less than 90 minutes but Glass does it, she touches upon everything whilst still delivering a chilling and uncomfortable experience. What Glass cleverly does is that she makes it clear that Maud needs help, after what happened in the hospital, after her time with Amanda, even after telling someone directly that ‘They will soon see’, nobody was able to help her, nobody wanted to help her leading Maud to turn to a God that may or may not be there, she’s a spot of life that people turn their backs to because it’s easier than trying to break through their indoctrination.
It’s that indoctrination that makes up most of the more horrifying elements, I can’t tell yet if Glass is attacking Religion, Christianity, or just blind faith in general, but Maud’s beliefs are unsettling to say the least. The ambiguous designs of hew relationship with God is one thing, creating distortion for the audience as you’re left wondering just what the hell is happening to her, but it’s the reality you can’t ignore that really creeps under your skin, how Maud so easily and so cruelly treats herself as a way of proving her faith – the shoe scene genuinely made me wince and I have a fairly strong stomach. I’m reminded somewhat of Scorsese’s Silence which also examined Faith through Suffering but here it’s on a much more visceral and personal level and Glass refuses to let you turn away from Maud’s disturbing actions.
Despite it’s short length, Saint Maud takes a slow, methodical approach to creep into your brain and leave you wondering, but I adore it for doing so, it’s not an easy film to watch, between the terminal illness and self-harm there’s a lot of pain to sit through, but it’s worth watching for the fantastic jobs of Clarke, who presents Maud warts and all to the screen and delivers one of the best performances of the year. And Glass who creates an unsettling and disturbed examination of religion, anguish, and delusions that I won’t soon forget about.
I’m giving Saint Maud a 5 out of 5 Hairpieces!