Dirty God

UK/Netherlands (2019) Dir. Sacha Polak

“Beauty is Truth”

So says John Keats in his Ode on a Grecian Urn but the irony is beauty is something that is very easy to manufacture and falsify. Yet we must also ponder our definition of beauty in reference to appearance. Take away our looks do we have nothing left?

Jade (Vicky Knight) is a young woman returning home from hospital following an acid attack from her ex-boyfriend that left her face and upper body badly scarred. Her baby daughter Rae (Eliza Brady-Girard) recoils from the sight of Jade’s face, taking a while to get used to her. Jade resumes her social life to the disapproval of her own mother Lisa (Katherine Kelly), but still has the support of her best friend Shami (Rebecca Stone).

However, this doesn’t help rebuild Jade’s confidence when out in public, and as accepting as her friends are, others are openly spiteful about her appearance, which begins to wear on Jade. Via the internet, Jade finds a clinic in Marrakesh that offers cheap plastic surgery and starts saving up to afford it, but life continues to throw further problems in Jade’s way.

A subject matter such as physical disfigurement in film can go one of two ways – sincere and empathetic, or sensationalist and didactic. Dirty God is in the former category yet also approaches its topic head on, without any fear of testing audiences or avoiding the shameful and less pleasant aspects of living with an impairment in an insensitive society without exploitation or emotional manipulation.

Director Sacha Polak may be Dutch but this feels wholly a British film, not just with the London setting but also in essence with its frankness in confronting the topical issue of acid attacks in the UK. The other positive is its representation of a disfigured person – Vicky Knight is genuinely scarred from a house fire when she was 7 years old, suffering 33% burns to her body.

When it comes to understanding something few of us will ever experience, candour is essential as this film keenly demonstrates. The opening montage is comprised of close-ups of Jade’s burned skin, enhanced by make-up by still Knight’s real scars, before cutting to her resigned face behind a transparent mask. Jade lives with her mother on a council estate; Lisa sells stolen clothes and also does occasional illegal Botox jabs, one of a few ironies sewn into the narrative.

It seems their relationship is fractious. When Jade goes out clubbing with Shami, Lisa’s annoyance implies perhaps Jade’s party girl lifestyle is the cause, and that Lisa feels she should be putting Rae first and being a mother. The subtext however, is maybe Lisa is simply trying to protect Jade from public humiliation but knows she can’t outright impose her fears onto her.

Constantly told she will be able to move on once her ex is imprisoned, the truth is far different, since Jade can’t escape being stared at. She tries to ignore it but the cruel comments and remarks burn as much as the acid must have. In one poetic scene, the only time Jade feels truly free outside is when she wears a full niqab. She floats and dances along the balcony of the block of flats in complete anonymity, ironically dressed in religiously oppressive garment.

One vital aspect in detailing Jade’s gradual return to whatever normality might be, is in recognising the emotional human needs that don’t sudden vanish just because her skin is damaged. Likely to prove most challenging for some viewers, Jade tries to quell her sexual desires by flirting with webcam guys but this comes back to haunt her in a big way. We shouldn’t recoil seeing this but psychologically we are conditioned to associate such acts with “attractive” people.

Polak is not just depicting life after an acid attack and asking for tolerance, she is also, in a subversive way reiterating the maxim of “beauty is only skin deep”. Shami and her boyfriend Naz (Bluey Robinson) are Jade’s closest allies, with the added hint that Naz and Jade may have been closer before, and maybe still could. This is as close as the story gets to serving convention, but in this instance it is life affirming for Jade, if heavy with moral implications.

Uplifting moments are at a premium, coming from the least expected places, but their fleeting presence is indicative of life. As much as Jade tires to carry on as normal it is the rest of the world that won’t allow her to. Yet, Polak doesn’t burden us with having to be angry at the callous few with the nasty comments, or feeling sympathy for Jade because it is not what she wants.

Vicky Knight was not an actress before making this film, making her performance as Jade a magical treat. The aesthetic credibility might already be there but that is half the character of Jade, the emotional connection Knight achieves is remarkable without ever compromising the raw realism of the film’s intent. Knight naturally draws on her own experiences, essentially reliving them for our benefit, showing tremendous strength in doing so as well as also performing naked.

Most of the cast have prior acting credits, the most familiar being ex-Coronation Street star Katherine Kelly, which shows in a couple of spots but is largely tempered in keeping with the general naturalistic mode of the film. Because Polak avoids a judgemental tone every character is flawed in some way, making them all believably human at best and at worst recognisable.

Dirty God is not an easy watch at times, holding a mirror up to how awful human beings can be, yet it has rays of positivity too. Eschewing melancholy and bleakness to appear gritty and substantial, this is a humanist tale that doesn’t flinch from the darkest details of the issue; we are asked to simply look, listen, and consider, not just observe from a safe distance then switch off when it ends.