Jade (Vicky Knight) is a London single mother. A resentful ex-boyfriend threw acid on her face. While months of surgery and skin grafts have saved her life, the deep irreperable scarring has left her deeply traumatised. Neglecting her family and friends, Jade slips into a downward spiral as she struggles to accept her new existence.
Dutch director Sacha Polak (Zurich, Hemel) makes her English-language debut with Dirty God. It presents a harshly realistic picture of a woman in crisis. The actual acid attack that shatters Jade’s life is never seen, but its catastrophic effects are played out front-and-centre. At times it is a deeply upsetting film. Elsewhere it is oddly radiant, and Jade’s unsteady resolve slowly comes to assert itself. At times the film feels a little uneven, but in its best moments – and there are plenty of them – it is absolutely rivetting stuff.
Polak – who also co-wrote the screenplay with Susie Farrell – directs the film with a deep sense of intimacy, keeping close to the characters to a level that occasionally feels oppressive. Cinematographer Ruben Impens captures the action with a handheld camera, which swings from bleak, claustrophobic depictions of London housing estates to harshly bright scenes in Morocco as Jade seeks a surgery that might remove her scars. Loud, energetic nightclubs seem to be the film’s only escape, and are shot in disorientating, almost hallucinogenic fashions. If the film is not inspired by the similarly bleak and honest works of Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank in particular seems to be an influence), then it is absolutely a close stable-mate to them.
Vicky Knight makes her acting debut here as Jade, cast in part due to her real-life facial scarring. For the most part Polak captures those scars unsentimentally; a clever choice that quickly redirects the audience’s attention from Jade’s appearance to her emotional journey. Knight gives a superb performance: in her hands Jade is a surprisingly unsympathetic person, making moral choices and impulsive decisions that regularly make her actively unlikeable. It is a brave piece of acting, one which ultimately makes Jade feel deeply real and fallible. Strong supporting performances are given by Rebecca Stone as Jade’s best friend Shami, as well as Bluey Robinson as Naz – Shami’s boyfriend with whom Jade has an obliquely presented back story.
Katherine Kelly plays Jade’s mother Lisa: a self-centered and relatively unsupportive woman who makes a living by re-selling stolen clothing and accessories. That she fails to properly connect with Jade’s experience is constant hurdle – and, indeed, one of the chief causes of Jade’s increasingly unpleasant situation. The film deteriorates from one crisis to another, almost to the point of breaking the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Some scenes in a call centre where Jade works ring oddly hollow, as does a supporting turn by Dana Marineci as a helpful co-worker which does not seem to resolve into anything particularly necessary for the story. A series of dream sequences involving Jade’s attacker add an extra level of discomfort.
Dirty God, for all of its faults, is a striking and powerful drama. It makes for difficult viewing at times. To its credit it does not tie up every narrative thread by the end. It remains precarious and uncertain, much like real-life tragedy can be, and offers a powerfully performed and striking central performance by a promising new talent.
Dirty God recently screened at the Sydney Film Festival.