I am not sure what I was expecting from Saint Maud, writer/director Rose Glass’ widely acclaimed psychological horror film. All I can be certain of is that I was surprised at what I saw, and at the same time rather ambivalent about it.
The film stars Morfydd Clark as Maud, a palliative nurse assigned to care for a terminally ill dancer named Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Maud is a recent and obsessive convert to Catholicism, and has also recently left working for a local hospital – although the details of that departure are deliberately left unclear. In Amanda Maud sees a chance to save a soul by sharing her love of Christ, but Amanda may not be so amenable.
Part of my problem with Saint Maud almost certainly stems from the reputation that precedes it. When released widely in 2020 it became a cause célèbre: nominated for an Outstanding British Film BAFTA, compared to the likes of Carrie and The Exorcist, and named by Mark Kermode as his favourite film of the year (calling it an ‘electrifying debut’). That is an enormous amount of pressure to place on a low budget, independent British film. Coming to the film cold would benefit it tremendously. Coming to it expecting a fully-blown horror experience akin to The Exorcist gives the viewer almost entirely the wrong impression.
There are certainly elements of horror to Saint Maud. There are moments of body horror, one or two shocking surprises, and an overall tone of rising dread. These feel more to me like techniques being applied to a tragic drama, however, than any dedicated genre piece. The film, in essence, falls between two stools: not really frightening or disturbing enough to properly qualify as horror, but at the same time a little too superficial and narrowly realised to work as a straight character drama. Taken altogether and on its own merits, the film feels unwilling to commit in one direction or another. It has a lot of decent writing, but perhaps not quite enough. It employs some decent filmmaking technique, but again not enough to fully succeed.
Where it does excel is in its performances. Morfydd Clark does a tremendous job of opening the audience to a world view and emotional state that instinctively feels alien and unpleasant, while Jennifer Ehle shows a wonderful balance in making Amanda both sympathetic and cruel. They play off one another well, which is critical given how much of the film revolves around them. It is also worth noting Lily Frazer’s potent but grounded performance as Carol, a third woman who complicates Maud’s plans for Amanda’s salvation.
Saint Maud squirms to satisfy its premise. There is a genuinely great movie hidden inside, but it struggles under the weight of an uneven structure – the climax feels horribly rushed – and apparent indecision over precisely what kind of story it wishes to be. The potential of what Glass is attempting keeps the viewer watching, but in the end too much of that potential goes unrealised. It is an interesting film, a promising one, and in fits and starts a satisfying one, but it never quite shakes the sense that it is merely good when it should be great.