Runtime: 1 hour 24 minutes
Director / Writer: Rose Glass
Stars: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle
By James Cain
When ITOL editor-in-chief and leader Bee Garner asked us to send in a piece on “one film which helped you get through 2020”, there was no doubt for me: Rose Glass’ incredibly dark, disturbing film “Saint Maud” wasn’t just my favourite film of 2020: it also offered a truly cathartic release.
To be clear, “Saint Maud” isn’t a horror film. I know, I know, as soon as a spooky film gets sophisticated it isn’t a horror movie to plenty of cine-snobs, but this really isn’t. It’s scary, sure, but “Saint Maud” is more of an oppressively sad psychological drama.
Shot in Scarborough, Yorkshire (the birthplace of oppressively sad!) and Glass’s feature debut as both writer and director, “Saint Maud” sees new convert to radical Christianity Maud (Morfydd Clark) taking on a job as palliative-care nurse for terminally-ill Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a faded starlet with little but reminiscence to keep her company much of the time.
The nurse is an incredibly uptight, humourless young woman with promises of madness. She lives in a sparsely bleak flat, religious iconography looking down on her with ceaseless judgement and pressure. Maud has become totally detached from everyday life, eschewing society to the point where she no longer has social skills as mental illness consumes more of her mind. Other than her job, it seems that the young woman’s one way to relieve pressure are her sporadic, involuntary moments of rapturous orgasm, flooring Maud as she’s overcome with religious fervour. Never say that God doesn’t know how to show a girl a good time.
It’s heavily implied that the Maud might not have gone down such a dark path were it not for proper workplace support while she was a hospital nurse, thus making this an unabashedly pro-NHS movie.
Maud’s patient Amanda, meanwhile, has no time for politesse, instead being drunk, taking barbed swipes at her carer, and just being a self-indulgent, self-destructive dick. She’s a woman who flew so very high, enjoying success and acclaim as a dancer. Now confined to a wheelchair in a foreign town and dying from lymphoma, Amanda is consumed by sadness. Both women are drifting towards the void and dealing with it in different ways, in an arrangement that’s unlikely to end well.
It’s heavily implied that the Maud might not have gone down such a dark path were it not for proper workplace support while she was a hospital nurse, thus making this an unabashedly pro-NHS movie. She is a wounded woman in search of a calling, set on ensuring that Amanda makes it into heaven. She’s a lost, possibly doomed (without the help that she should very much be receiving) Christian caring for a dying woman in a decaying town, at least to Maud’s eyes. It’s a tremendously bleak film, showing how even those with the best of intentions can’t always break free from the path to self-annihilation.
Special kudos must go to casting director Kharmel Cochrane: each person with whom Maud interacts on her mission from God feels perfectly placed to act as sandpaper to her skin (Cochrane also cast “The Witch”, a film that would make an ideal double-bill with “Saint Maud”). The whole world feels at once nightmarish dark and banally everyday, with Anna Mould’s set decoration work (especially Amanda and Maud’s respective homes) being a real treat. From Glass to Clark to Ehle, everyone involved is on incredible form.
2020 was a year of great uncertainty, with extra pain for most of us. We’ve been stuck inside; public spaces have been hostile to our wellbeing; our own mental health has taken a battering. All of this is present in “Saint Maud”: Not in any Nostradamus-esque fashion, (“How Saint Maud predicted 2020” etc etc) but it still explores topical themes in a fashion that only dark cinema can. This film is unlikely to bring you any happiness, peace or solace, but it will get under your skin. Happy 2021, the last year has been horrible!
Note: The inimitable Jenni Holtz will be writing ITOL’s official “Saint Maud” review upon its much-delayed US release.
[Content warning: “Saint Maud” contains depiction of sexual assault and self-harm, as well as themes of trauma.]