Dirty God review: An extraordinarily intimate study of an acid attack victim

This isn’t a film about beauty being on the inside as its director Sacha Polak makes sure to chronicle the everyday humiliations that Jade endures with her scarred face 

Geoffrey Macnab
Friday 07 June 2019 11:40 BST
Dirty God UK Official Trailer

Dir: Sacha Polak. Starring: Vicky Knight, Rebecca Stone, Bluey Robinson, Katherine Kelly. Cert 15, 104 mins

When a beautiful young woman has acid thrown in her face, what does it do to her sense of self? This is the key question asked in Dutch director Sacha Polak’s exceptional and excoriating new London-set drama.

Jade (Vicky Knight), who lives in Hackney, is the victim of the acid attack, committed by her former partner. She is first encountered as she is about to be discharged from hospital. Early on, she still has to wear a mask which, she jokes, makes her look like Darth Vader. Her face and neck are very badly scarred. Her tiny daughter recoils and bursts into tears at the sight of her.

As Polak makes clear, looks are a currency. Jade is used to nightclubbing and communicating with all her friends on social media. Now, she is a near pariah. They don’t want to engage with her. The doctors won’t operate again unless her skin contracts and restricts her movement. “So I am left with this f***ing dog’s dinner,” she says of her own appearance. Desperate for human engagement, she uses online sex sites, claiming at first that her own webcam is broken but then exposing herself in a painfully frank fashion.

Polak shoots the film in a poetic realist style reminiscent of the work of Andrea Arnold. She and her Belgian cinematographer Ruben Impens find unusual and often lyrical ways of depicting everyday moments. For example, one key scene takes place in a car during a car wash. The point may be obvious – Jade wishes that she could be left looking as clean and new as the vehicle but her scars can’t be wiped off. We also see Jade briefly try on a hijab and run carefree through the council estate where she lives, delighted to be able to conceal her appearance. “You’re not one of them wotsits,” a friend asks, alarmed she might be becoming a Muslim.

The filmmakers don’t flinch from showing Jade’s scars. The film opens in very striking fashion with huge, fetishistic close-ups of her wrinkled skin. Knight, a burns victim herself, plays Jade with vivacity, anger and defiance. Polak is too subtle a filmmaker to turn this into some sort of fairy tale about beauty being on the inside. She makes sure to chronicle the everyday humiliations that Jade endures and to show her moments of bitterness and self-pity. Her mother (Katherine Kelly) takes over most of the child minding, enabling Jade to work (at a call centre) and to party. She has one close friend, Shami (Rebecca Stone), who sticks by her. They go clubbing together, smoke, drink and get up to mischief, often with Shami’s boyfriend, Naz (Bluey Robinson), in tow. Jade has feelings for Naz that pre-date the acid attack. He remains attracted to her – a complication that threatens to cause further chaos in her life.

The narrative style is elliptical and impressionistic. Polak gives us little sense of how much time is passing, instead showing us a series of random incidents from Jade’s home and work life. She is always looking for ways of escape. Online, she discovers a Moroccan skin surgeon who, she thinks, will be able to heal or conceal her scars at a price. When she travels to Morocco, Naz and Shami come with her. In their scenes together, the film’s emphasis changes. The scarring is forgotten as Polak explores the shifting dynamics of their friendship and the way the friends deceive one another.

Dirty God can hardly be called a redemptive story but Jade does learn eventually to deal with her plight. There is something moving and cathartic about this process. She accepts her responsibilities as a parent. She realises that others close to her are also struggling in their lives and trying to take ill-advised shortcuts to achieve their dreams. This is an extraordinarily intimate and closely focused character study. In a frank but sensitive way, Polak delves into areas that most other filmmakers would be far too timid to go near.

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