Positively vibrating with barely suppressed pain, rage and injustice, Sacha Polak’s Dirty God is both a sharply observed character study and a damning indictment of our skin-deep Instagram culture. Fuelled by a stunning debut performance from newcomer Vicky Knight, the film explores life on the margins, without ever succumbing to the well-worn clichés that normally define such outsider narratives. That it marks the English-language debut of Dutch filmmaker Polak (Hemel, Zurich) is particularly impressive; working with co-writer Susie Farrell, Polak has made a hard-hitting, bitingly authentic film in the vein of social-realist works by British filmmakers such as Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsay.
The Netherlands/United Kingdom/Belgium/Ireland 2019
Certificate 15 104mins approx
Director Sacha Polak
Jade Vicky Knight
Lisa Katherine Kelly
Rae Eliza Brady-Giraud
Shami Rebecca Stone
Naz Bluey Robinson
Flavia Dana Marineci
Real-life burn survivor Knight puts in a transcendent turn as twentysomething Jade, whom we meet as she prepares to leave an East London hospital; the scars across her face, chest and arms speak of serious trauma and the months of treatment that have been endured. Jade returns home with her mother Lisa (Katherine Kelly), a shared smile in the back of the cab tinged with uncertainty about what lies ahead.
It’s immediately clear that life will not be the same. When Jade goes to collect her infant daughter Rae from a neighbour, the child reacts to her mother’s appearance with screams of terror. While others in her life may not respond with such unbridled aggression, and her best friend Shami (Rebecca Stone) treats her no differently, she nevertheless endures endless stares, whispers and open taunts. Jade responds with calm resilience; aside from a vicious altercation with cruel workmates, she keeps her anger in check. It’s only late in the film, in a rare moment of cathartic unburdening, that we see her weep as she recalls how Rae called her “a monster”. She is, however, clearly adrift in her own skin.
Yet this is determinedly not a film about victimhood, but survival. We only learn about Jade’s trauma – an unprovoked acid attack by her ex-boyfriend – through snippets of conversation and a short court sequence; and although there’s an underlying sense that both Jade and her mother are struggling to come to terms with the randomness of the event, there’s no soulsearching, no moment of wailing self-pity. “My God’s definitely not your God,” Jade tells Shami’s boyfriend Naz (Bluey Robinson) at one point, with characteristic dryness. “My God’s a dirty God.”
There’s no denying that Jade’s scars are the first thing that people see, including us; the film opens with Ruben Impens’s camera panning intimately over Jade’s skin, a thematically fitting alien landscape of ridges and knots, to the bewitching strains of Iranian-Dutch singer Sevdaliza’s ‘Human’ – “I am flesh. Bones. I am skin. Soul.” Crucially, however, Jade is not defined by them. Taking care to avoid the traditional onscreen treatment of disabled, ill or scarred characters, Dirty God refuses to place her on a pedestal or make her an object of either pity or pro-activity.
Instead, she is a well-rounded, flesh-and-blood character with a cracking sense of humour, a propensity for making stupid decisions and an overt, raw sexuality shown in often explicit detail in sequences of masturbation, fumbled flirtations with Naz and, most interestingly, erotic dreams about her attacker. And while the film’s third (and weakest) act sees Jade travel to Morocco in search of too-good-to-be-true cheap plastic surgery, real peace comes not from physical transformation but from the gradual acceptance that, underneath it all, she remains the girl she always was; nothing more nor less than human, as vulnerable and fallible and messy and fascinating as the rest of us.