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Film Review: Saint Maud

28 October 20 words: Roshan Chandy

Morfydd Clark is electrifying in Rose Glass’s sexuo-religious horror, says Roshan Chandy…

Director: Rose Glass
Starring: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Knight
Running time: 83 minutes

The best British horror film of the year arrives on UK screens this month. First premiering at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019 (how long ago?), Saint Maud was originally scheduled for release in May of this year. Delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the film now couldn’t be a more timely release in the month of Halloween. Anchored by an electrifying performance from Morfydd Clark, it is genuinely scary and intelligent; forgoing cheap genre tricks like jump scares for ideas about religion and female sexual jealousy, escapism and liberation.

Saint Maud begins in a gothic hilltop mansion that could easily double for Satis House in Great Expectations. This is the home of Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) - a terminally ill retired dancer. Amanda’s private carer is Maud (Morfydd Clark) - a staunchly Christian nurse. Maud performs menial duties such as cooking, cleaning and administering medication. However she grows increasingly infatuated with Amanda and believes she has been sent by God to save her from sin.

In the titular role, Morfydd Clark has some of the scariest facial features ever put to film. Her beetle eyes, crooked teeth and matted hair almost look like they were auditioning for the part of Miss Havisham - hence the Dickensian Satis House connection. It’s interesting too that she played Dora Spenlow in another Dickens adaptation - Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield.

The theme of sexual jealousy manifests itself in a scene where Amanda is visited by a sex worker named Carol (Lily Frazer). When Maud tells her to stop seeing Amanda, Carol says she can’t work out if Maud is “a bigot or if she’s just jealous”.

A future classic in the making

Maud uses sex as an escape from the traumas of her previous life. There’s a sex scene intercut with shots of a violent operation. At another moment, she offers a handjob to a guy in a bar. A devout Christian, we are expected to believe that Maud’s sexual conquests are a source of freedom - freedom from the orthodoxness of a God-fearing life.

This film is perhaps slightly confused about its religious compass. Sometimes it takes an anti-religious stance. In one scene, Maud quotes the writings of William Blake. “Organized religion is an agent of social control instead of a source of life and liberation” she reads. A line which backs up Blake’s view that the Christianity of his day was a distortion of true spiritual life. Yet at other times, the film seems pro-religion. In the climactic moments, Maud has an encounter with the Devil. With scissors to the neck, she is purged of him for life.

Above the guise of its critique on religion and sexuality, Saint Maud is firstly a populist piece of horror; designed to shiver your timbers and make you wet your bed. It does this not through generic conventions like a bogeyman in a closet but rather through a gradual build-up of atmosphere, suspense and tension built into the narrative.

And underwriting it all is Adam Janota Bzowski’s ethereal soundtrack which beautifully blends Inception-y “BRUUMs” with wolf howls and sirens singing. Add to this Clark’s unhinged performance and this is a future classic in the making.

Did you know? The film was fully financed by Film4 Productions and the British Film Institute.

Saint Maud is in cinemas now

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