Oct 4, 2019

24FPS @ LFF 2019: Saint Maud

Dir: Rose Glass
Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a recent and zealous convert to Christianity. As a private nurse to Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), who is dying of cancer. Maud does her job trying to look after her patient’s ailing body, but also concerns herself with Amanda’s soul, but her devotion to her religion becomes more extreme and more disturbing with time.

Ever since I was able to really consider the various claims, I’ve found religion less than credible, but I remain fascinated by it and by films about it. The roots of belief, how people engage with it, how it can change them, the actions it can drive people to - for good or ill - are all intriguing and much-explored subjects in cinema. 

We never get to see where Rose’s faith begins, but we meet her as a relatively new convert, which goes some way to explaining how devout she is, seemingly having thrown herself fully into this new faith. Rose Glass seems to set up Maud’s faith as a defence mechanism; a way of her feeling that, in a world where she seems to have few other engagements, she can feel someone always has her back. This is particularly underlined by Maud’s prayers, which are conversational more than they are devotional, and seem to speak of a desperate need for meaning and connection.

This need to make connections, if not for herself then for God, is further underlined in Maud’s relationship with Amanda. She only mentions her religion after Amanda comments on her crucifix necklace, but thereafter is trying, gently but firmly, to win her soul. Boundaries begin to be crossed though, and we see a moralistic side to Maud’s Christianity in her conversation with Carol (Lily Frazer), an escort Amanda hires on a regular basis. 

None of these are bad ideas, but they are all very familiar. The drawing of an increasingly bold connecting line between devout religion and mental illness is a crutch that many films have relied on in the past, as are the handful of moments that equate religious and sexual ecstasy. While Maud is more sympathetically and fully presented than many of those characters, these are still old devices and Rose Glass’ screenplay fails to reinvent them, particularly in the film’s second half. The film’s imagery is impressively mounted, but it’s also rather predictable. Again, this is something especially felt in the film’s back half, as it moves away from the two hander about Maud slowly trying to live up to Amanda’s inscription in a book of William Blake’s paintings she gives her nurse as a gift, calling her her “saviour”. 

The second half trades in more extreme imagery as it depicts the difference between Maud’s image of herself and the world and the reality around her and in almost every instance we can predict what we’re going to see long before Glass shows it to us. This makes the last forty minutes or so much less intriguing than you’d hope. The commentary on religion is obvious and done to death and the progress of the story is a trudge towards a heavily signposted ending. Sometimes, knowing where a film is leading can give it a doomy feel of inevitability (even predestination, given the themes here), but that never clicked for me here, perhaps because the film doesn’t use that ending to say anything it hasn’t been shouting for an hour already.

The one thing that unambiguously works about Saint Maud is the acting. Jennifer Ehle is excellent as a woman constrained before her time by terminal illness, but still as vivacious as ever, bursting with the desire to eke whatever enjoyment she can out of her final weeks and months. As is so often the case in her work, Ehle is a bit underused, but again she makes an impression bigger than her role, which is helpful in keeping Amanda present in our minds in the second half of the film. There are also effective performances by Lily Frazer as Carol and Lily Knight as Joy, who knows Maud from a previous job and seemingly as a very different woman.

The film, though, belongs to Morfydd Clark, whose exceptional performance as Maud lifts the entire enterprise. While the machinations of the character and the story are fairly rote, Clark invests them with such detail and truth that not only can we not help but empathise with Maud, she becomes more interesting as a character because we invest and believe in her psychology thanks to Clark’s work. Along with Glass, she evokes an emptiness that allows us to understand why Maud turned to this extreme piety. There are some extreme moments in her performance; the contorted face and body of the moments that her religious experience seems to turn at first sexual, then for a split second painful or disturbing, but it’s the quieter moments that resonate. This is the aspect of the second half that does work, her silence when Joy turns up at her flat, her serenity in the film’s final scene. It’s great and complex work, it added a star to my grade by itself and serves notice that Clark is a real talent to watch.

I wish Saint Maud were better. The acting deserves a screenplay that does some more inventive things and digs deeper into its themes. Rose Glass serves up some memorable images and conjures a weirdly non-specific but still palpable sense of place, making me wonder what she might do in the future with someone else’s writing. On the whole though, this has to go down as something of a disappointment; a film that can’t as a whole match its best elements.

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