Dirty God, 2019.
Directed by Sacha Polak.
Starring Vicky Knight, Bluey Robinson, Rebecca Stone, Katherine Kelly, Dana Marineci and Eliza Brady-Girard.
A young woman tries to rebuild her life in the aftermath of an acid attack that left her horribly scarred.
The prevalence of acid attacks in the UK – London has been called “the acid attack capital of the world” in more than one report – is not something that has particularly fed into our popular culture as yet. With that in mind, the new drama Dirty God feels like it taps into a particularly horrible part of our modern society. It’s an occasionally harrowing, but also uplifting story about a woman struggling to pick up the pieces of her life in the aftermath of a brutal attack carried out by an ex-boyfriend.
Dutch writer-director Sacha Polak – making her English language debut – tells the story with real sensitivity, through the eyes of her leading lady Vicky Knight. A non-professional actor, Knight was seriously injured at the age of eight in a fire at the pub where her family lived. As a result, she’s able to bring her own experience to the role of Jade, whom we meet shortly after the attack as she returns home to her mother (Katherine Kelly) and toddler daughter Rae (Eliza Brady-Girard).
Knight’s performance is raw, but undeniably driven by reality, which she uses to imbue every moment of the film with an emotional honesty. The inherent verisimilitude of Knight’s work allows Polak to tell a story that’s fairly light on narrative and deals for the most part in the feelings of the character. Her attacker, who might have been a key role in a lesser movie, is kept firmly out of the way, appearing only as a scared boy in the dock during one brief scene and as an insidious, pseudo-sexual presence in Jade’s nightmares.
Dirty God explores its character with real sensitivity, but never sands off the rough edges of her as a person. She spends much of her time clubbing with best friend Shami (Rebecca Stone) and her boyfriend Naz (Bluey Robinson) – for whom Jade has concealed sexual feelings – or engaging in explicit webcam chats with strangers in an online chatroom. The film never judges her, depicting her both literally and figuratively naked in order to get to the heart of her new, imperfect life.
There are few key plot drives in the story, but Jade gets a desperately tedious job in a call centre to fund an expensive trip to a slightly dubious plastic surgeon in Morocco, which she sees as a solution to her current malaise. Her journey to that trip is circuitous and shaggy, but it’s always believable. The chemistry between Knight and her co-stars crackles with the kind of foul-mouthed energy common among tight friend groups (“you little c**t” is an affectionate greeting”) and their affection for each other manifests clearly, perhaps thanks to the use of largely non-professional actors.
As a rare experienced voice in the film, Kelly showcases the same chameleonic ability here that she has long displayed on the small screen. A late in the day dialogue scene between her and Knight has a tenderness and familiarity that is impossible to fake as both women disappear completely into their characters. Kelly’s character could easily be written as a nagging voice of agitation in Jade’s life, but she’s instead something far more nuanced and human.
There’s something inspiring about Dirty God, but this is not an ‘issues movie’ of the sort you’d expect from someone like Ken Loach. It’s a depiction of working class British life that is often bracing in its realism, but it isn’t misery porn and it isn’t designed as a campaign or polemic. This is a character study first and Knight’s fiery, sensitive performance ignites the core of a movie that has a lot to say, but never sacrifices an ounce of truth in order to make its point.
All involved surely have an array of thrilling work ahead of them.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.