Review: ‘Saint Maud’ (guilt with purpose)

Worst beach party ever.

Hospice nurse Maud (Morfydd Clark) is determined to prolong the life of her current charge Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a retired dancer embittered as her body succumbs to cancer. Maud has a secret, however: she is more concerned with Amanda’s immortal soul than her patient’s failing health. While Amanda’s mood swings with the medicine she takes or forsakes, Maud holds herself responsible for saving the woman by taking it on as an internal battle. Convinced only she understands what must be done, Maud’s mind unravels while preparing herself to cleanse her charge of evil — no matter the personal cost — knowing her great reward awaits.

Writer/director Rose Glass has created the story of a would-be exorcist, a self-fulfilling prophecy exacerbated by a belief in something greater than herself that she can aspire to. It embraces the best and worst of religious dogma, but the trailers showcase hints of what appears to be the supernatural… or perhaps only what Maud herself sees in her own mind. With actual lives on the line, is Maud truly being tested beyond human limits to attain personal sainthood, or is something horrible about to take place because no one is paying attention to what is actually happening?

Since William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, filmmakers have attempted for decades to replicate the first-watch feeling of the 1973 film, reinventing the genre while also paying those origins proper respect. Stigmata is a brilliant example of reworking the idea; there’s also The Rite and more recently The Vigil, but there have been more bad examples than recommended ones. Unfortunately, Saint Maud begins to fall apart in its lack of commitment even as the director reportedly admits intentional similarities between this work and earlier exorcism fare. Like too many films destined for awards contention, Maud may be the hero of her own story if what she sees is real but also the villain if it’s not. It’s a brave story choice when made deliberately, but in this edit, the final scene falls very flat, inflating the question if time spent was worth the resolution. This is a prime example of needing a denouement that is strikingly absent.

Morfydd Clark throws herself unashamed into the role of Maud, a complex character erasing the line between hero and villain. The effects and camerawork suit the story being told with the above exceptions; it isn’t a matter of craft but intent. Jennifer Ehle’s portrayal of self-destruction and fickle wants for companionship twist to become the perfect catalyst to stoke Maud’s savior mindset. Even the tone and atmosphere serve the story, but bits of humor and other inappropriate moments seed clues that never come to fruition, which seems a terrible waste not to follow through on. Clark’s Maud has a long fuse that burns brilliantly for a while, but the expected explosion sputters; the real victim here is a lack of mental health care on many levels, but the plot points add up to a terrible disservice to the setup, burying the better angle in favor of a would-be angel.

It’s true The Exorcist no longer retains the power it once held, lost through endless retreads treating the film like a step-by-step guide to Catholic horror. Any filmmakers out there wanting to see a better way to indulge in their possession obsession, try Stigmata on for size. Those leaning more heavily into mental health issues to fuel their entry would be well-advised to do their research, because setting it up as a mere footnote seems irresponsible.

Saint Maud is rated R for disturbing and violent content, sexual content, language, and if the title made you question whether Bea Arthur was worthy of sainthood, your age is showing.

Two skull recommendation out of four.

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