'Saint Maud': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
This may hurt a little.

Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle play nurse and patient in this claustrophobic psychological thriller from debutante director Rose Glass.

Although this unsettling, contemporary-set British psychological drama is not a biopic about the real-life canonized St. Maud, a 10th century, excessively devout German queen, it's not hard to imagine why the lead character might have chosen to rechristen herself Maud after a trauma and subsequent conversion to Christianity. Like the disturbed palliative-care nurse we follow here, played with subtlety but also white-hot fervor by Morfydd Clark, the original St. Maud nursed the sick, and is now considered the patron saint of misbehaving children.

That second bit seems apt here given that this striking and auspicious feature debut for writer-director Rose Glass explores the title character's obsessive need to control and maybe even convert her older, terminally ill patient, played by Jennifer Ehle. Redolent of a video-store shelf's worth of 1960s and '70s psychological horror thrillers — especially Repulsion, Performance, Taxi Driver and maybe even The Killing of Sister George in an oblique way, as well as recent pastiches of that same period (The Duke of Burgundy) — Saint Maud seeds the clouds with an eclectic mix of influences, but it works, creating a film with its own strange weather. 

Stab-quick flashbacks of a gory scene in a hospital and dropped hints elsewhere suggest something bad happened to a patient in the backstory for which tightly clenched nurse Maud (Clark) may or may not be responsible. Now, instead of working in the national health service (where she was known as Kate before she changed her name), Maud is caring for terminally ill patients through a private agency in an unnamed seaside town. (The street scenes were shot in picturesque-seedy Scarborough, in the north of England.) 

Her latest client is Amanda (Ehle), once a feted, avant-garde dancer in the Pina Bausch vein judging by a video clip we see at one point, who now has a terminal illness, probably cancer judging by the hair loss. But despite the fact that Maud wants to see the glamorous and witty Amanda as an injured broken bird to be cared for, Amanda is more like a spider nesting in her vast bed at the center of a dark house full of corners, menacingly patterned wallpaper the color of blood and secrets.

Amanda is not evil or anything as simple and banal as that — just a very smart, complex woman bored with the last stages of her own mortality. In Maud, whom she describes at one point as the loneliest person she's ever met, she sees an amusing if broken plaything to fill up the time with in between visits from her young, sexily snarling lover, Carol (a vividly feral Lily Frazer).

But Maud isn't as simple as she looks either, and the two begin a tango of seduction or destruction that leads to some very weird head games. Eventually, Maud's faith and perhaps her sanity starts to fray and crackle, and she swaps the starched uniform for sexier threads and a night of hedonism for herself.

By the end, it's not entirely clear whether we have entered an ecstatic realm where the supernatural is possible or whether it's all in Maud's imagination, like the whirlpools she sees in glasses of beer and bathtub drains, redolent of Hitchcock's famous shower scene in Psycho. That ambiguity of genre, never entirely resolved, may frustrate some viewers, but it's clear Glass knows exactly what she's doing as she keeps adding thin layers of meaning and texture to the narrative. This smart, sinister work represents a very arresting calling card which augurs very well for her future prospects.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Midnight Madness) 
Production: A Film4, BFI presentation of an Escape Plan production 
Cast: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Frazer, Lily Knight, Marcus Hutton, Turlough Convery, Rosie Sansom, Carl Prekopp, Jonathan Milshaw, Noa Bodner, Rosie Sansom
Director-screenwriter: Rose Glass
Producers: Oliver Kassman, Andrea Cornwell
Executive producers: Daniel Battsek, Sam Lavender, Mary Burke
Director of photography: Ben Fordesman
Production designer: Paulina Rzeszowska
Costume designer: Tina Kalivas
Editor: Mark Towns
Music: Adam Janota Bzowski
Casting: Kharmel Cochrane
Sales: Protagonist

83 minutes