Religious convert Maud starts work as a live-in nurse at the home of Amanda, a famous dancer now frail from illness and trapped in her grand, isolated house.
We know exactly what the friendless, fervently religious Maud thinks, because she chats to God all the time to assuage her loneliness. Her (to us) one-sided discussions with him, a strange mix of the conversational and the stilted, sound like a combination of teenage journal and a Victorian ward writing to her guardian from boarding school.
Saint Maud, the eye-opening directorial debut from Rose Glass, is jolting and intense, as recent convert Maud obsesses over the soul of her patient, Amanda. It’s an obsession that neatly papers over the realities of Maud’s own shame, the fragile base on which her commitment to God sits, and the similarities between the two women.
The sense of claustrophobia hangs around like a headache as Maud’s suffocating fixation threatens to expand to fill every space in Amanda’s large, dark Victorian house, where the curtains are forever shut. When we venture out it’s to Maud’s grim bedsit and the chilly, grey town. The air of intruding sadness is bolstered by an effectively intrusive score, a collection of jarring booms that warn and overwhelm, while everyday noises become unbearable.
I don’t have the focus to commit to anything like Maud does, which is probably why my very religious phase in my late teens didn’t last very long; that and the fact that my own dear Church of England has sometimes seemed to see belief in God as more of a hindrance than a help.
Nowadays I’m more into the cultural side of religion, its symbolism and ritual; it helps that we have a particularly hot vicar round these parts, and every December you’re never further than 200 yards from a lovely candlelit carol service.
Maud (Morfydd Clark) would of course disparage my fake religiosity, once she realised it was fake. Her own conversion has something to do with a traumatic patient death when she was working as a nurse in an NHS hospital; now she is employed as a private carer, though still in the same nameless English seaside town. Her agency sends her to look after Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a 49 year old “dancer, choreographer, minor celebrity” as Maud sneeringly describes her, who has stage 4 cancer.
The provincial Maud initially seems no match for the worldly, talented and popular Amanda, who is friendly but not a friend. A witty atheist with an exhaustedly bitter core, despite her own worries about what will happen when she dies she is amused and then irritated by Maud’s increasingly self-righteous attempts to save her non-existent soul.
Faith may move mountains but Maud’s clunky attempts to police Amanda’s life are easily spotted by her target. While Maud pours away bottles of booze and spies over her having sex, Amanda introduces her to William Blake, the poet and visionary who abhorred organised religion. Maud pores over Blake’s intricate drawings, one small fevered mind trying to tap into a greater one, desperate to understand her own relationship with God and to anchor herself.
It’s a deeply unsettling and exceptionally tragic performance from Clark, a tour-de-force depiction of a lonely woman, adrift and frightened. Maud’s entire sense of self-worth appears detached, first cleaving to God and then to Amanda; her attempt to see off Amanda’s lover Carol is as much about sexual jealousy as concern for her soul. Ehle’s Amanda is multilayered, a woman without the time left to indulge Maud’s fantasies (though I doubt she would have, even before her illness).
Yet Maud is more like Amanda than either would care to admit: both focus on whatever they can to distract them from their trauma. For Maud that means busybodying around her client’s life; meanwhile Amanda smokes like a chimney, has sex and drinks champagne with friends to put off thinking about her own demise.
Both also see the body as a canvas to express their feelings and show their devotion through its suffering. In a particularly wince-inducing scene, Maud practices mortification of the flesh, later taking it to even greater extremes. Amanda is a dancer, author of The Body Is A Stage and well-used to putting her own body through its own extremes of pain and contortion to tell a story.
Saint Maud is small scale and initially deceptively low-key. Its horrors – both earthbound and other-worldly – could easily be a glossed-over footnote in a world where large-scale religious fervour has done so much damage over the centuries to the women it recruits and the women it feels threatened by.
The title is mostly mockery, as Amanda’s friends at a party stick a napkin on Maud’s head in honour of her self-satisfied saintliness. Her response, considering that culturally we prefer to focus less on activist saints in favour of those that accept mockery as something to be beatifically endured, is sudden and unexpected, an indication of the maelstrom of emotion lurking beneath Maud’s quiet piety. It’s an incident which leaves her adrift once more and triggers the film’s horrifying climax. (Watching the film, its punning tagline – Your saviour is coming – is also revealed.)
Glass doesn’t bother much with extraneous detail, as her film steadily ratchets up the hemmed-in horror. Each woman’s past drifts at the edges like a mist while she maintains a piercing focus on Amanda and Maud’s short relationship and the fissures it reveals.
The last scenes are devastating – the final shot a gut punch as someone realises too late that she was wrong.
Read my very spoilery article – Saint Maud: sex and death and God and souls.
Saint Maud is out on digital, DVD, blu-ray and limited edition steelbook in the UK now.
Watch the trailer now: