Unable to achieve ascension, Saint Maud (2020) finds a home in cinematic purgatory.

Rose Glass’ feature debut is a strikingly stark psychological horror, powered by two mesmeric central performances and a stylishly bleak aesthetic. Claustrophobic and intimate to the point of intrusive, it’s very well crafted and occasionally shocking but ultimately it doesn’t bring anything new to the sanctified vs psychosis trope that dwells malevolently at the heart of “Saint Maud”.

Recently ‘born again’ nurse Maud (Morfydd Clark) is preparing for a new nursing assignment and awaiting her great purpose from God. Her assignment is to provide palliative care for Amanda Kohl (Jennifer Ehle), a free-spirited former dancer, now dying of cancer but as Amanda and Maud grow closer, Maud comes to believe her great purpose is to save Amanda’s soul.

In her exploration of trauma, mortality and belief, Glass overlaps a lot of the favourite themes of Ari Aster but unlike Aster she’s able to thoroughly explore the territory with efficiency and economy, packing a lot of metaphysical content into the film’s trim 84 minutes. Much of this is down to Morfydd Clark’s phenomenally nuanced and layered performance as Maud (or is it Katie?), bringing a wealth of emotional authenticity to a character portrait of an introverted young girl deep in crisis with nobody to turn to. Vacillating between piety and wantonness, forever seeking purpose and spiritual fulfilment, it’s an astonishingly tense and uncomfortable, sustained for the entire length of the piece as she descends through devotion to fanaticism and eventually mortification.

Counterpointing the tightly wound Maud is the louche and languorous Amanda, a survivor of the cut-throat showbiz world of professional dance now facing her mortality with a mixture of hedonism and nihilistic cynicism, played by Ehle who often seems to be channelling Meryl Streep playing Norma Desmond. Glass expertly teases the audience with the faint possibility that these two lost, damaged souls will find solace and some form of salvation in each other before allowing them both to fall to their most destructive impulses, placing them both on course for tragedy.

Aside from some leadenly obvious Kafka references, visually, the film’s mix of tight close ups and ambient wide shots does a great job of underlining Maud’s increasing isolation and detachment from the world around her but it’s hard not to feel like there’s a lot of set-up for a brief and shocking final few minutes and despite the sterling work of the cast, we don’t really get to understand either of the main characters beyond where they are in their lives now. It’s a deliberate choice to lean into the conceits of ‘elevated horror’, which often mistake inscrutability for intrigue and withhold any sense of catharsis from both characters and audiences, and undercuts what’s happening on screen.

“Saint Maud” is a provocative and thought-provoking film with astonishing performances and it promises great things from Rose Glass in future but its righteous spark arrives a little too late and the smouldering tinderbox of character and emotion never manages to light the pyre.

7/10

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