A young working-class woman in London barely has the mechanisms to cope with a horrific acid attack that’s left her face permanently scarred in “Dirty God,” the first English-language feature from Dutch director Sacha Polak. Neatly fitting into Polak’s liberatingly frank takes on female sexuality (“Hemel,” “Zurich”), the film boasts a stand-out performance from newcomer Vicky Knight and an unflinching portrait of a strong-willed yet immature protagonist facing a radical change in how the world looks at her as well as how she sees herself. While the script’s insistence on transforming the character from victim to resolute survivor doesn’t fully wash, its bold treatment of an unapologetic woman from the projects will play well on independent screens.
Never one to shy away from images traditionally considered unsettling, Polak opens with widescreen close-ups of acid-damaged flesh, the camera capturing the mass of ravaged, puckered tissue covered in shallow dendrite-like ridges. Although Knight is herself scarred from a burning accident, the makeup department enhanced the disfigurement for her character Jade, ensuring that viewers confront the discomfort of watching a woman whose blond good looks would conform to Western notions of beauty were it not for the scarring on large portions of her face, torso and arms caused by an acid attack by her ex-boyfriend.
We first see Jade the day she’s discharged from the hospital, collected by her mother, Lisa (Katherine Kelly), a brittle woman with a black-market business selling stolen clothing and handbags out of her apartment. Once home, Jade goes to embrace her two-year-old daughter, Rae (Eliza Brady-Girard), but the child turns hysterical on seeing her mother’s damaged face encased in a temporary protective clear mask. She’s unlikely to ever have been the best of mothers, but Rae’s upsetting reaction sends her to the more affirming presence of her best friend, Shami (Rebecca Stone), whose unfazed ebullience is just what Jade needs. But as a night out with her old mates proves, re-integrating into her life is going to be a challenge she’s ill-equipped to handle.
Polak’s especially good at capturing Jade’s chummy relationship with Shami, a party girl whose friendship is true-blue as long as the fun continues, and Shami’s boyfriend, Naz (Bluey Robinson), who continues to play on the sexual tension that existed between him and Jade before the attack. Used to being able to work her physical attractions to satisfy urges, Jade’s now starved for the attention she once took for granted, resorting to video-camming on chat sites while keeping the camera off her face. It’s a release of some sort but also becomes an avenue for humiliation, further reminding her that with the loss of her looks came a loss of empowerment.
The doctors tell her there’s little more they can do cosmetically, but she’s lured by a Moroccan website offering cheap plastic surgery – Jade is strong-willed yet not terribly bright, and it’s clearly a scam. To pay for the trip and fees, she gets a job at a telemarketing company, facing down the stares and taunts of colleagues whose hostility is overdone though more believable than when she’s given an employee of the month award. Thankfully the script makes very few false notes like that one, designed to produce an artificially constructed feel-good sense of Jade finding agency after so many obstacles.
As in her previous films, each with a different cinematographer, Polak includes moments of striking tactility, such as a scene in which Jade dons a niqab and swirls across her apartment building’s balcony, finding confidence in her ability to hide while spectacularly displaying herself at the same time. Elsewhere, a sequence where she’s in a car wash with her one friendly colleague, Flavia (Dana Marineci), acts as a quasi-phantasmagoric crucible as the windshields are awash in soap, water, and reflections. Two brief nightmare scenes in which her attacker appears in a collar of black cock feathers, hovering by her face, are intriguingly ambiguous but need developing.
Much attention will deservedly be paid to Knight’s impressively nuanced performance – it’s one thing to cast an amateur who’s been through similar experiences, and quite another to get that person to inhabit a fictional character. Vulnerable, flinty, and unashamedly sexual, Knight’s Jade may not be an especially likable person, but she’s vibrantly real, and the newcomer brings a forceful physicality and, in her scenes with Robinson, a palpable sensuality.
Camera work by Ruben Impens (“Beautiful Boy”) is especially sensitive to how light is cast on Knight’s face and body, as well as the differences between the cold tonalities of England and the warmer qualities in the Moroccan scenes. Music by Polak’s regular collaborator Rutger Reinders is exceptionally well-used.