The charge of Rose Glass's seesawing debut Saint Maud lies in watching a power struggle unfolding within a house beset by demons. The house, which stands alone on a clifftop in a dead-end seaside town, belongs to Amanda Kohl (Jennifer Ehle), a noted dancer rendered immobile by terminal cancer. Her outgoing carer, escaping while the going's still halfway good, describes Amanda to her replacement as "a bit of a cunt", but she's at least straightforward with it, your basic bitter boho diva. No, it's the incoming nurse, a mousily devout thing called Maud (Morfydd Clark), who's the real odd one here, less a repository of academically trained rationalism than a character from another century, prone to fainting fits, bouts of self-flagellation, and passing conversations with God. (Her closest cinematic sister would be Emily Watson's Bess from Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves, yanked sideways into the horror genre.) As a carer, Maud proves attentive to the point of possessive, warding off Amanda's admirers where she can for reasons that emerge in the course of her structuring voiceover: this wingnut has a pronounced saviour complex for which the usual DBS checks probably can't test. The tension is thus a matter of how Maud will defy what medical science has deemed inevitable; though, given the intensity of Clark's performance, and Maud's willingness to do terrible things to her own knees and the backs of her hands, it appears there is no extreme to which our gal isn't willing to go.
This week, we found out Saint Maud is leading the field at the London Film Critics' Circle Awards with a total of eight nominations, which strikes me as... surprising. Glass's film is unarguably an eyecatching debut: born of an off-kilter sensibility, thoughtfully composed by its maker and her cinematographer Ben Fordesman, and set out over a brisk 84 minutes. Glass isn't wasting anybody's time here. It's one of those debuts where the influences sit close to the surface, readily identifiable: the house on the hill is recognisably Amityville-Psycho, there's a liberal dash of The Exorcist in the mix, while the fraught relationship between the headscarfed Amanda and her terse-mouthed custodian is a little bit What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, albeit played dead straight. Yet that adds up to an oddly sullen B-movie, and I'm afraid the close juxtaposition of promenade mundanity and old-school Gothic in particular never quite took for me. I can see what Glass was going for: seaside town as end of the world, exactly the place people come to die, complete with big brooding skies that open up, come the final reel, like a portal to another dimension. But it's hard to keep up that cosmological seriousness when there's a donkey derby and a penny arcade not ten minutes out of shot; the two halves of the picture - the fantasy and the realism, the heaven and hell - didn't coalesce into an entirely satisfying whole for this viewer.
Once she's exiled from the enabling gloom of the Kohl house and left to walk these streets for the best part of the second act - once she's exposed to what passes for daylight here - it becomes clear that Maud makes little sense as a character, and doesn't have to make sense, being at heart the kind of erratic, vengefully rampaging God-botherer who could occupy the psychopath role in any number of trashier entertainments: it's just, this being an Arty British Horror, she gets her visions from a William Blake coffee table book, that's all. Clark is certainly committed in the role, and all but unrecognisable from her dual turn in Armando Iannucci's The Personal History of David Copperfield; the industry may well have a uncommonly gifted shapeshifter at its service in the years ahead. (She could be our Julie-Marie Parmentier, head slitherer of Lucie Hadzihalilovic's Evolution.) Yet as Adam Janota Bzowski's parping score, the loudest sign of directorial overcompensation here, kept flagging, the film she's turning otherworldly cartwheels within is a hokier, far less robust proposition than Natalie Erika James' recent Relic, another all-gal chiller premised on the horrors of impending doom and the strains that follow from caring for someone so close to the grave, but one that felt lived-in rather than conceptual, internally coherent, and - again, at least to this voting critic - far more affecting.
Saint Maud is currently available to rent via Prime Video.