“When you pray, do you get a response?” A terminally ill cancer patient named Amanda (played by Jennifer Ehle) poses this innocent-sounding but loaded question to her nurse, Maud (Morfydd Clark). Amanda knows that Maud is religious and says her nightly prayers, but Maud reveals that her devotion to God runs even deeper. “Sometimes he talks,” the nurse replies. “Most of the time it’s just like he’s physically in me, or around me. It’s how he guides me. Like when he’s pleased, it’s like a shiver, or sometimes it’s a pulsing. And it’s all warm and good. He’s just there.”
Maud delivers the speech with warm romanticism, an ode to a presence only she can feel. But Rose Glass’s exciting directorial debut film, Saint Maud, imbues that devoutness with tension and doubt. This small-scale chamber piece embraces elements of celestial horror, teasing dark questions: Is Maud, a mousy home nurse who has visions of angels and demons, really a servant of God who’s been drafted into a grand war against evil? Or is she just a troubled young woman on the verge of committing terrible acts? The clever script, written by Glass herself, is designed to keep the viewer guessing until the very last minute, and it’s the foundation of the first great horror movie of the year.
Saint Maud premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2019, and was due for release last April before being delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s finally debuting in theaters today, and will begin an exclusive run on the cable network Epix on February 12; fortunately, it’s the kind of intimate and intense work that can feel just as scary at home as it does on the big screen. This surreal character study luxuriates in the fantastic visions and gory body horror playing out inside the head of one mysterious young woman.
Clark has been a name to watch for years, mostly appearing on-screen in British costume dramas (Love & Friendship, The Personal History of David Copperfield) as supporting characters who were delicate to the extreme (such as David Copperfield’s sickly Dora Spenlow). Maud is a more complex creation, a nurse haunted by her past failures who switches to home care in search of less stressful working conditions. Clark plays her as alternately guarded and vulnerable, afraid of speaking about her faith but unusually confessional when she does.
As she eventually tells Amanda, when she prays, she hears an answer—but her description of God speaking to her is almost sexual (when he’s pleased, it’s like a shiver). Glass wants the audience to ponder whether Maud’s fervent belief is perhaps powered by loneliness, but visually, the viewer is in Maud’s head. She perceives supernatural danger all around her, like people’s faces contorting horribly, and sees herself as an avenging angel, at one point sprouting a pair of glowing wings and wandering around her one-room apartment proudly flapping them.
Still, as compelling as these visions are, Glass injects uncertainty at every turn, alluding to buried trauma in Maud’s past that might be powering her delusions. The most compelling dynamic, though, is between Maud and Amanda, a caregiver-patient relationship that hints at forbidden love. Ehle is outstanding as a weary, flirty former dancer who has resolved to drink and smoke her way through her final days. As her relationship with Maud becomes surprisingly close, Glass emphasizes a lurking danger through just Maud’s furtive glances and tense silences. She’s a character in desperate need of affection, but she also often reacts to warmth with hostility; the monster hiding in the dark corners of this film is, essentially, herself.
Cinema has a long history of psychodramas that conflate mundane anxieties with paranormal fears, and Saint Maud certainly owes a debt to classics such as Rosemary’s Baby and Don’t Look Now. But while those films play out in sumptuous locations (Manhattan and Venice), Saint Maud is set in a desolate English seaside town, the kind of economically depressed area that already looks hellish and abandoned. Glass has an uncanny sense of how to use the environment—blasted, windswept beaches and creaky old amusement parks—to reflect her main character’s fragile mental state. It helps ratchet up the mystery as Saint Maud enters its final act, which somehow manages to provide satisfying answers to what’s going on with Maud without sacrificing the grander atmosphere of ambiguity.