Saint Maud wasn’t supposed to be released in these circumstances. Originally set for release in May before Covid-19 hit, it’s suddenly become the torchbearer of the British cinema industry, burdened by lofty expectations as one of the few new releases that are supposed to prop up theatres as they face their biggest existential threat yet. Rose Glass’s feature debut proves to be a fascinating slow-burn horror touching upon themes of religion, female friendship, death, and trauma. Just the kind of cheery pick-me-up we need!
Fans of white-knuckle thrillers should be warned ahead of time that Saint Maud’s horror is primarily psychological (though some wince-inducing gore doesn’t hurt). Contrary to Love Island star Molly-Mae Hague’s assertion that ‘not one bit of it made sense’, Saint Maud’s plot is relatively straightforward, charting the simultaneous development of the relationship between Maud and Amanda and that between Maud and her God. We gradually come to learn more about who Maud is and how she came to be this way before resigning ourselves to watching as Maud’s righteousness and conviction inevitably threatens to destroy both herself and those around her. Morfydd Clark portrays Maud with a quiet intensity, fervently self-assured while simultaneously mild-mannered, and shifts expertly between identities as Maud’s relationship with her past and her faith fluctuates. Her foil is Jennifer Ehle as her terminally ill patient Amanda, a classy, somewhat patronizing older woman who humours Maud’s attempts to ‘save her soul’ while sneaking behind her back to hire sex workers and throw parties.
It’s hard not to feel some empathy for Maud. She lives alone, friendless, in a tiny, grimy flat. No family seems to be present. Maud is also clearly still suffering from some kind of trauma that occurred while she worked for the NHS, though exactly what happened is never made fully clear. Though filmed in 2018, the film particularly resonates in our current climate as a meditation on the unaddressed trauma that healthcare workers – particularly those working in palliative care – are liable to undergo. At the same time, however, there’s something narcissistic about Maud’s desire to save Amanda, and her attitude towards non-believers is one of superiority rather than sympathy. Maud may perceive her goals as being in line with those of God, but it’s hard not to see her faith as a matter of self-aggrandisement.
The delight in viewing Saint Maud stems from its nuance. Glass refuses to delineate Maud’s faith – the viewer constantly questions whether she’s delusional, or whether a higher being really might be speaking to her. When Maud speaks to God, in most cases (though not all, and there’s a wonderful scene near the end when God speaks in Welsh!) we only see the manifestation of this communication through her weird, almost erotically-charged gasping. It’s difficult to know exactly what her true relationship to faith is, and this is what makes her so compelling as a character. The realisation of how easy it is for people to become so utterly self-assured in their faith, whether pushed by trauma or trained by education, is, for me, the core horror of the film.
Aesthetically, Saint Maud combines the bright lights of rain-soaked promenades, craggy beaches, and a homely mansion to create a palette rich in gold, grey, red, and black. Most of the film takes place at night, and it’s in these dimly-lit scenes that we – and Amanda – see Maud and her faith at their most exposed and vulnerable. The special effects are used relatively sparingly but are convincing, and the final scene of the film uses them to a stunning effect. They represent the only jumpscare moments in the film, but they’re never simply just for show – instead, Glass uses them to blur the boundaries between hallucination and reality. The audience is left unable to distinguish what’s real and what’s not – much in the same way as Maud.
Saint Maud on the big screen was a really fulfilling, nuanced experience and a welcome return to the cinema. It’s such a shame that its big moment has been taken away by lockdown again. Large production companies will be able to weather the storm, but first-time directors like Rose Glass need viewers more than ever – especially when films like Saint Maud show so much promise. The future of British horror is in safe hands – but only if we support it.