Sacha Polak’s Dirty God wouldn’t have been out of place at Sundance London last week. In fact, it would have been a welcome addition, given that it had an outing in Utah in January and was one of the contenders for its World Cinema Grand Jury Prize. As it is, the film opens this Friday in just over 20 cinemas around the UK, and nearly two thirds of them are in London. It deserves more, but such can be the fate of low-budget independent films. All the more reason to shout about them.
Polak’s first film in English – she was born in Holland – is the harrowing yet compassionate portrait of young mother, Jade, after an acid attack all but shatters her life. The culprit is her child’s father and the scars on her face and upper body are the outward expression of her turmoil underneath. Getting her life back on track – re-building her relationships with her toddler and her mother, trying to get a job, coping with the realities of her appearance and the ignorance of strangers – are just some of the obstacles in her way, most of which are outside her own control.
Jade is played by first-time actress Vicky Knight, a real-life burns victim which adds even more authenticity to the film’s no-filter, documentary style. Her rage constantly simmers below the surface, as does the need to be accepted as somebody who is more than the damage done to her skin. And she’s haunted by the man responsible for those scars: not only does she come face to face with him when he’s sentenced for his crime, but she can’t get him out of her head. In perhaps the most fascinating scenes of the film, she keeps imagining the two of them together again, her deep-rooted attraction for him jumbled up with her own PTSD. It makes for a compelling performance, one that more experienced performers would be proud of.
We’re spared the act that devastated Jade’s life – Polak rightly judges that we don’t need to see it – but we do get a searingly honest account of it some way into the film. Our imaginations do the rest, such is the power of the deceptively straightforward dialogue. But she can’t avoid the ignorant remarks of others, the worst one being on her first day at her new job in a call centre: a male colleague asks if the “plastic surgery didn’t work for you?” It’s not the only jibe and it hurts, but her efforts to have actual plastic surgery are even more devastating, both for her and her mother, Lisa (Corrie’s Katherine Kelly).
Despite its bleak storyline and setting, Dirty God isn’t without hope. Jade’s efforts to improve her life don’t always work – some are near disastrous – but there’s always the promise of light at the end of her journey and, thanks to Knight’s performance, we’re willing her to get there. The narrative is on the thin side, with the emphasis placed on the central character, so the overall effect is lop-sided. But there’s no denying that it announces the arrival of a new acting talent.
Freda Cooper | [rating=3]
Drama | Cert: 15 | UK, 7 June (2019) | Modern Films | Dir. Sacha Polak | Vicky Knight, Katherine Kelly, Rebecca Stone, Dana Marineci.