Synopsis: A pious nurse who becomes dangerously obsessed with saving the soul of her dying patient.
Stars: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Knight, Lily Frazer, Turlough Convery, Rosie Sansom, Marcus Hutton
Director: Rose Glass
Running Length: 84 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: For a while there, it was looking like Saint Maud was going to be the one that got away. Making its debut all the way back at 2019’s Toronto International Film Festival where it was acquired by red hot indie studio A24, then on quite a roll with next-gen horror fare like Midsommar, Hereditary, In Fabric, and Green Room. Early trailers were enticing, hinting at something different than your usual religious experience horror outing, and filtered through a uniquely female lens, something the sub-genre was sorely missing. Originally supposed to debut in April 2020 but then, well, you what happened; Saint Maud became a long-standing casualty of the great 2020 shuffle and only recently received its release on a smaller scale than was intended. As it turns out, perhaps it was a good thing the movie eluded me for so long. While it gets off to a swell start with haunting imagery, committed performances, and a claustrophobic set-up suggesting a mountain of dread ahead, it plays its hand too early and effectively leaves a solid 40 minutes that can’t live up to what came before. For all the talk about it eschewing the trappings of other religion-based horror films, it actually manages to fall into lockstep with every one of them until the climax that, while one doozy of a final kick in the rosary beads, is more inevitable than it is thrilling.
In a dullish town on the English seaside, Maud (Morfydd Clark, The Personal History of David Copperfield) is the newest hospice nurse assigned to care for Amanda (Jennifer Ehle, Run This Town), a caustic former dancer turned choreographer moving into the final stages of terminal cancer. We’ve seen the bloody remnants of the last job Maud (then known as Katie) held and since then she’s found God which has led her to Amanda’s doorstep. At first, Maud seems to be just what Amanda has needed in a nurse. She listens to her patient and humors her whims to a point but stays firm in the care she administers and the boundaries she sets. Pallid Amanda drops her acidity towards her caregiver and indulges her as well, listening to Maud’s recounting of a recent conversion to the church and giving her the kind of attention only someone experienced in nurturing young souls could pull off without making it seem as phony as it most definitely is. If only Maud knew of Amanda’s lack of sincerity.
The bigger problem is that Amanda is still Amanda deep down and her late-night trysts with Carol (Lily Frazer, The Gentlemen) start to light the fire and brimstone under Maud, especially when she finds out the online hook-up has been accepting money when their visit is over. Of course, Amanda isn’t about to be ordered around on a personal level by her younger, ultra-religious nurse, which puts their working relationship to the test. It all comes to a head as Maud begins to unravel under the weight of what she believes is her duty to “save” Amanda before she dies while at the same time battling her own snarling demons that are causing her to act on some very basic instincts of her own. Consumed (or possessed?) by the need to purify the soul, Maud sinks far beneath the dizzying swirl of her fractured reality.
The opening act of writer/director Rose Glass’s horror film is spooky and, at times, quite scary in a real-world, unsettling way. Maud is so innocuous with her intentions that the little ways she tries to subvert Amanda’s way of living is troubling at first, disturbing around the halfway mark, and totally unknown by the end. It’s as if Glass knew how she wanted to start things and how it would end but wasn’t quite sure how to fill in some major gaps of action in the middle third. That results in a long period of time where Saint Maud goes off the rails in the clunkiest of ways, focusing on Maud’s journey into the black abyss and it’s frankly not nearly as interesting as anything else in the movie. We’ve seen characters like Maud go through these trials before and they’ve been far more effective in intent and execution, not that Clark doesn’t commit to the character with a bravura performance that keeps the film with a hearty pulse.
Where Glass has found the steeliest strength in Saint Maud is the casting of her two main character and I’d argue that Clark and Ehle’s scenes alone would have been enough for the movie to be a larger success had the above-mentioned passages been truncated or excised all together. The dynamic between the two women is skilled, the electricity palpable. I could just easily have believed Glass’s screenplay began life as a script for the stage and might imagine it would make for excellent material for actresses to use in scene study down the road in a few years. Though Clark can hold her own (when it’s just her), Saint Maud’s fervor drops considerably when Ehle isn’t somewhere nearby and we’re lucky Glass has given her several boffo moments throughout. The remaining supporting cast tend to blend together, dwarfed by the large shadows cast by the strong stars.
Like many movies that get their fuel from the mystery of religion, Saint Maud derives a number of its shivers from the unknown. Though it does resort to jump scares on occasion, much of the actual terror the posters and pull quotes proclaim come more from witnessing the disturbing decay of the supposedly pious and downward spirals we are unable to stop from happening in the third act. Without spoiling anything, I’ll say the final few minutes did give me the heebie-jeebies, leaving this viewer with one or two lingering images that I’d like to quickly forget. However, it’s all to send a shock wave through your system and the attempt at being so bold at these very last moments have a bit of a smell of last-ditch desperation to them. Some penance is needed for this not being the holy terror it could have been, though Clark and Ehle’s performance makes it worth it for a time.