It’s been a really solid Midnight Madness slate at this year’s TIFF, with titles like Blood Quantum, The Platform, and Colour Out of Space tearing up screens and drawing audiences wild at the Ryerson every night so far. But the very best film in the whole program might have premiered on Sunday night, when Rose Glass’s Saint Maud was unleashed upon a totally unsuspecting crowd of folks, and I’ve got to say, this one is absolutely worth keeping your eyes out for to see when and if it gets released theatrically in the United States. It’s a slow-burn genre-shifter that lulls you into a sense of complacency early on with its quiet kindness, right up until it T-bones your fucking sinuses with some of the gnarliest religious horror in years.
Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a pious young nurse who believes that she can talk to God. She sits alone in her cramped little skid row apartment each night, hearing all of the misery of the world occur around her walls, and she retreats further and further into her faith in order to remain untainted by it. Assigned to hospice care by her private nursing agency, she finds herself assisting Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a dancer forced into retirement by a stage-four bone cancer diagnosis and suffering every bit of the way. She drinks heavily and smokes constantly, afraid of what’s to come, and Maud makes an attempt to reach out to her with her faith. The two form a bond, as Amanda grows curious about Maud’s religious habits and in turn introduces the young nurse to the religious artwork of William Blake. But Maud makes a key mistake one night, and soon Amanda cruelly turns against her. Maud is “tested by the Lord,” she loses her job, succumbs to temptation, and begins to descend further and further into delusion — or maybe she’s actually adhering to the Lord’s commandments?
Clark is, in all honestly, one of the best discoveries of this year’s festival so far. She is incredible here, showing off both a ferocity of belief and a weakness that makes her an absolutely compelling, pitiful and frightening character. Ehle acts as a stabilizing agent, an outsider to her viewpoint that alternatively rewards it and trashes it, and her physical degeneration over the course of the film mirrors Maud’s own descent into religious hysteria.
Glass’s film is firmly rooted in Maud’s perspective: Her voice-over guides the film, and we experience her phenomena alongside her, but it’s never fully unchecked by reality. The scares and laughs are equally measured out, with one jump-scare in particular being so out-of-left-field that it both works and doesn’t feel cheap at all. It’s a wonderfully-crafted thrill ride that entertains and sucks the viewer in until they’re utterly captivated by the goings-on, and the ending most definitely doesn’t disappoint, either. Glass is a star to watch, but Clark is absolutely the real deal, and here’s to hoping that Saint Maud is just the beginning of a long and lovely career. It’s one hell of a start, though.