Saint Maud (Cinemas, 15)
Verdict: Gripping and disturbing
Kajillionaire (Cinemas, 12A)
Verdict: Might steal your heart
I Am Woman (Cinemas, 15)
Verdict: Tin-eared biopic
Religious fervour in the movies is a hell of a thing. We’ve only just seen Harry Melling as a murderous preacher with a messiah complex in the Netflix film The Devil All The Time, and now it comes in the even more unsettling form of Morfydd Clark’s title character, in the grippingly disturbing Saint Maud.
Clark has form playing young women with problems.
She was jilted at the altar in last week’s release Eternal Beauty, and died in childbirth in last year’s The Personal History Of David Copperfield, in which she also played Dora, David’s hopeless wife.
Morfydd Clark in the grippingly disturbing Saint Maud makes the title character both empathetic and terrifying
Saint Maud has all the suspense of a really top-class psychological thriller that might at any moment burst into a full-on horror film
But they all had easy rides compared with the unstable Maud who, in trying to put behind her some unspecified scandal in her nursing career, has turned to God, clinging to her new-found devotion like a failing respiratory patient might cling to an oxygen mask.
It is a truly riveting performance. Clark somehow makes Maud both empathetic and terrifying; if you encountered someone like her, you’d either hug her or run a mile.
She lives in a down-at-heel British seaside resort, again unspecified, where as part of her rehabilitation she has both changed her name and taken a job as a palliative carer to Amanda, a famous choreographer dying of a wasting disease (Jennifer Ehle, also magnificent).
Cynical, embittered, angry at the world with good reason (she’s not yet 50), Amanda finds her pleasures where she can. She’s a chainsmoker, and gets her sexual kicks from a friend called Carol.
Deeply disapproving of such a louche lifestyle, Maud takes it upon herself to save Amanda’s soul. Amanda plays along. She even develops an affection for her intense, uptight, fanatically religious carer.
Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins and Evan Rachel Wood all star in quirky comedy Kajillionaire (pictured)
In the meantime, we in the audience hear Maud’s prayers — ‘Forgive me my impatience, but I hope You will reveal Your plan for me soon.’ But does the Almighty? Her God doesn’t seem to return her unconditional devotion.
Writer-director Rose Glass keeps all this building ominously, with the suspense of a really top-class psychological thriller that might at any moment burst into a full-on horror film.
It’s her feature-length debut as a director yet she cranks up the tension with the mastery of a veteran.
So it would be wrong to call this Clark’s show, but she really does give a hugely powerful, many-layered performance as a woman who longs only to embrace the angels, but can’t shrug off her demons.
In one of the film’s more disturbing episodes, we get a glimpse — in truth, more than a glimpse — into Maud’s ‘sinful’ past.
Then, in her crucifix-festooned bedsit, she gets a visit from a former colleague that is a knuckle-chewingly tense a scene as I have seen in the cinema for some time.
With Saint Maud, Glass announces herself as a filmmaker to watch, while Clark compounds her reputation as a British actress of impressive versatility and prodigious talent.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Evan Rachel Wood ticks those boxes, too.
In Miranda July’s quirky comedy Kajillionaire she is terrific as the 26-year-old daughter of a couple of Los Angeles scam artists, Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger), who have raised her, without much conspicuous love or tenderness, to be a thief and swindler as skilled as they are.
Even her unusual name, Old Dolio, is owed to an attempted scam — her parents, always on the lookout for an unearned buck, named her after an old man who won the lottery, in the hope that he might include her in his will.
We meet this strange trio as they go about their daily business, literally keeping their heads down to avoid being seen by their landlord, to whom they owe money.
He runs a factory, which regularly spills excess pink foam into their home. They must wipe it up as a way of keeping their rent down.
All this is precisely as weird as it sounds. July, whose credits include her acclaimed debut Me And You And Everyone We Know (2005), does not make conventional films.
But it has a certain zest, charm even, and gains some much-needed momentum when Gina Rodriguez enters the fray as Melanie, a woman they meet while attempting a lost-baggage scam on a flight to New York.
I have been a sucker for films about American con artists ever since my own parents took me, aged 11, to see The Sting.
Paper Moon, The Grifters, Catch Me If You Can and American Hustle are other great examples, all a cut above Kajillionaire. Nevertheless, it might just steal your heart.
The obvious tactic of titling a music biopic after one of its subject’s most famous songs has paid off with the likes of Rocketman, Get On Up, and Walk The Line.
Alas, Helen Reddy is not nearly as well served by I Am Woman, a leaden, lumpen account of how the Australian singer-songwriter arrived in New York in the mid1960s as an unknown single mother and within five years had become a star, and the sweetest voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement.
Reddy’s death just last week at least makes the film unexpectedly timely, but does nothing to make it more watchable. Aussie actress Tilda CobhamHervey plays Reddy nicely enough, but that’s partly the problem — she is far too wholesome to be remotely interesting.
In New York she is courted by producer Jeff Wald (Evan Peters), who in one of the film’s more thrilling scenes has a late-night game of chess with her. Then they marry and go to live in Los Angeles, where he undergoes that standard requirement of the duff biopic, the Personality Transplant.
After which everything starts going wrong for Reddy, before everything starts going right.
The British film that conquered Moscow
MOSCOW INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
The 42nd Moscow International Film Festival finished last night with a notable success for British director Rishi Pelham.
His terrific debut feature Hilda, the only UK contender among the 13 competition films, won two of the festival’s five prizes — Best Director for Pelham, and Best Actress for newcomer Megan Purvis.
Megan Purvis (above) is superb in the title role as a teenager from a deeply dysfunctional London family who seeks respite from the challenges of everyday life
Purvis is superb in the title role, as a teenager from a deeply dysfunctional London family who seeks respite, above all in her love of dance, from the challenges of everyday life.
I was privileged to be one of the five members of the Moscow jury, and I hope it’s not giving away any secrets to say that my fellow judges — Kazakh producer Timur Bekmambetov, Russian actress Marina Aleksandrova, Egyptian director Mahmood Soliman and Romanian director Alexander Iordachescu — all felt the same way about Purvis’s startlingly mature performance.
Best Film went to a harrowing Russian movie about the wartime siege of Leningrad, A Siege Diary.
We gave the Special Jury Prize to a powerfully dystopian Turkish film, In The Shadows, and the Best Actor award to Gur Bentwich, who also wrote and directed a wry Israeli comedy about a neurotic film director, Peaches & Cream.