Dirty God Review
According to figures compiled by the Acid Survivors Trust International, the UK has the highest rates of acid attacks per capita in the world, with as many as 2,000 reported between 2016 and 2018, the majority of them taking place in London. It’s a frightening statistic, and while police state men are twice as likely to be victims of an attack, women in abusive relationships are also vulnerable to receiving life changing injures.
Sacha Polak’s Dirty God is one of only a handful of films to approach this subject, using non-professional actress Vicky Knight to follow Jade, a young single mother in recovery after having acid thrown in her face by a violent ex-boyfriend. Set in Hackney, East London, Polak immediately opens by focussing on the scarring caused by the attack (Knight is a real-life burns survivor) asking the audience to assess its own ideas about beauty, and how physical looks remain the primary driver by which women are judged by society.
It's a theme that remains at the heart of Jade's story, who we join as she leaves hospital wearing a plastic mask on the lower-half of her face and returns to the council flat home she shares with her mother, Lisa (Katherine Kelly). Along with watching her toddler daughter, Rae, struggle to adjust to her new appearance, Jade has to find a way to fit into to the wider world and way others perceive her. Darkened nightclubs offer a sense of escape, as do online chatrooms that allow her to control what men can see of her physicality, while an advertisement for a remote cosmetic clinic in Morocco gives her a false sense of belief it could repair the damage caused by the attack.
Polak’s decision to choose Knight as her lead adds an instant sense of authenticity to the film; some of her own experiences no doubt aligning with those we see Jade face up to. Knight looks comfortable enough in-front of the camera and gives a solid performance that makes Jade feel tangibly real (Katie Jarvis in Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank spring to mind). The camera is constantly wielded to its subject and as such demands a little more from Knight that as a non-professional actress she isn’t able to offer. Which is no fault of her own, of course, but her inability to fully emote her struggles keeps the audience at a frustrating distance.
There is a slightness to the narrative in Dirty God that lessens the power of the topics it wants to confront. It doesn't help that Jade’s complicated relationship with best friend, Shami (Rebecca Stone), and her new man, Naz (Bluey Robinson), is left hanging and the final resolution found with her mother never feels earned. Which is a shame because Polak is addressing some uncomfortable ideas about motherhood, femininity and the way women are expected to define their self-value through the male perception of beauty.
Ruben Impens’ (who also shot Julia Ducournau’s Raw) photography finds the gritty realism in Hackney’s unpolished landscape and a sensitivity in the way it handles Jade’s scarring detail. In terms of representation, Polak's film stands head-and-shoulders above many others who have failed to lend an authentic voice to those who feel unable to fit into the norms of society. Whether or not Knight will continue to seek out roles remains to be seen, but she leads the way to show how to take on the world on your own terms.
Dirty God opens in UK cinemas on June 7.