Nursing an Obsession
Once more unto the strange demi-monde which constitutes a trip to the cinema these days. The multiplex appear to be doing its best to battle on, showing whatever new films are being released, big-screen favourites (I suspect attendance for the inexplicably popular diversity barn-dance The Greatest Showman may be hit by the fact it gets its UK terrestrial TV premiere this week), and even the odd special event (they're opening one evening especially to show a new documentary about Gretel Thunderbird). But the signs that something is not quite right are unmissable – normally you hardly ever get out-of-genre trailers ahead of a new film, but there was a real mixed bag this time, including the trailer for Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth's new weepie twice (once was enough to do the job).
Anyway, this week's Medal of Valour goes to the makers and releasers of Rose Glass' Saint Maud – although, if we're going to be strict about this, the film actually came out a couple of weeks ago, before the local cinemas went back into siege conditions. This is, one suspects, quite a low-budget movie (not that it comes across that way), and so the exposure of the backers should be limited: with a possible American release still to come, one hopes they do okay with it.
Morfydd Clark plays Maud, a young woman working as a nurse in a grim-looking seaside town in England. Before the film even gets going we are treated to a rather ominous tableau involving a corpse, somewhere vaguely medical, and a cockroach, and of course the question is whether this is backstory or a promise of things to come. It is some time before we find out. In the meantime, Maud (who is clearly very devout and much given to prayer) starts her new posting as a palliative carer for a former dancer named Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Amanda is very ill – 'you'll be seeing her soon, I think,' Maud says to God – and perhaps finding it hard to come to terms with her condition. She is cynical and jaded.
This is not, you would think, a recipe for happy relations with a committed Christian like Maud, but Amanda seems to be fascinated by Maud's faith and even begins to show signs of having a bit of a spiritual awakening herself. However, as all this is going on, we are learning more about Maud herself: she is prone to strange, rapturous seizures, for one thing. And also, more ominously, it becomes clear that Maud is not her real name, and there was an incident in her past which led to her leaving a job at the hospital.
But all this seems to be behind her now, as she seems to be building such a good relationship with Amanda. Until, that is, her attempts to lead Amanda into a more virtuous way of living, controlling who she sees and what she does, cross the accepted patient-carer boundaries, with eventually regrettable consequences for both of them...
Jennifer Ehle, as you might expect, is very good as Amanda, but this is one of those films which stands or falls by the quality of the lead performance – and it must be said that Morfydd Clark is quite extraordinary here. This is the kind of acting that wins awards when it doesn't appear in a horror movie, as Clark creates a wholly rounded, completely convincing, deeply alarming characterisation in the course of the movie. You get a complete sense of this person's personality and how it has been shaped by events in the course of what's quite a short film (less than an hour and a half); even from the start, when Maud might just seem to be another mousy, slightly prim and repressed young woman, there is a sense that there is something just slightly off about her. She is just a bit too intense and repressed. Naturally, we get to see other sides of her character as her resolution wavers in the course of the film: which just reminded me of something I was once told – it's all very well letting yourself go once in a while, as long as you can get yourself back again.
But events have left Maud isolated and lonely, with only her faith for consolation and purpose. I can imagine that this is the kind of film that faith groups are likely to complain about, as it isn't the most flattering depiction of religious belief – in fact, as the film goes on it gives, I imagine, a pretty good impression of what it's like to be trapped in the mind of someone in the process of going completely insane. It's an outstanding character study, but throughout the film you're seeing the world through the eyes of someone profoundly disturbed, and this is quite as uncomfortable as it sounds.
This is a film which is strong on atmosphere – brooding and oppressive, as you might have guessed – with lots of rumbling cello on the soundtrack (Adam Janota Bzowski did the music). It's such a long, slow burn that for a while I wondered if this was going to turn out to be another of those post-horror movies we've been having recently. In the end I would say not: the scares and the blood eventually arrive, to shocking effect. The film deploys its small number of digital effects cannily, to produce a genuinely otherworldly effect when they appear. There's one particular shot at the end of the film which is so unexpected as to be almost breathtaking, almost leading the viewer to reconsider all they've seen – but the volta to this, when it comes, hits like a hammer.
Saint Maud isn't a popcorn horror movie by any stretch of the imagination, but something much darker and more intense, and I can imagine some people will wonder how I can find this kind of film actually enjoyable – it's the kind of film you emerge from shaken and rattled and glad to get back into the light. The answer is simple that's it's supremely well-made, especially considering this is Rose Glass' first film as writer and director, and there's always pleasure to be gained from craft and artistry. It's the most impressive debut I can remember seeing in a long time, and one that makes her someone to watch out for (at least if cinema survives the current crisis). This is one hell of a movie.