A quietly angry cry for help

Wendy Lloyd watches 'Dirty God', a new film directed by Sacha Polak.

Writer-director Sacha Polaks’s English language debut is as notable for the intense psychological journey it prompted for first-time actress Vicky Knight, as for Knight’s portrayal of acid attack victim Jade. The actress has spoken frankly about the personal challenge of taking on this role: aged 8 she suffered horrific burns in a fire that killed family members. Knight’s admitted that showing off her own scars (which were cosmetically enhanced for the role) and navigating her unresolved trauma vicariously through Jade was traumatic, though ultimately healing.

Following lingering close ups of her scarred body and face over the opening titles, we see Jade leave hospital after many painful surgeries. Her mother has provided loving care to Jade’s two year-old daughter Rae since the attack, but appears to have limited patience for her daughter’s on-going plight. Indeed, despite a well-meaning but emotionally absent best friend Shami, only Jade can truly perceive the myriad ways her disfigurement renders her persona non grata. There is disgust everywhere she turns; frequent verbal abuse, and she can merely look on in envy at Shami’s intimate relationship. Even her own daughter fears her, and in a bittersweet sign of Jade’s desperate resourcefulness, she hides her face under a blanket and soothes Rae to sleep with a puppet show. It’s shocking watching the random cruelty meted out by strangers on Jade, who is surely a universal victim. But perhaps this says a lot of about the long-standing cinematic trope of disfigurement equating to evil; be it Freddy Krueger or Bond’s Blofeld. Fittingly, and apparently in response to Dirty God, the BFI has recently stated its refusal to fund movies that feature this lazy and damaging characterisation. 

The film’s major strength, apart from Knight’s performance, is being taken inside Jade’s daily predicament and all it entails for a non-privileged young woman. There is no light bulb Hollywood moment of finding a way forward and things working out. It’s messy; Jade is erratic, angry and vulnerable, as a PTSD sufferer with inadequate support would likely be. She has nightmares and conflicting fantasies about her former partner and attacker. Ever-hopeful of further surgeries that will improve her appearance, she is understandably frustrated by a doctor’s detached prognosis that 'we’re where we need to be'. 'Well I’m not' Jade retorts, in a quietly angry cry for help that goes unanswered. Grappling for ways to survive her new identity, she desperately reaches out online for sexual contact and surgical options, only opening herself up to further vulnerability and abuse.  

It sounds relentless, yet Knight’s performance, along with a cinematic deftness from Polak, locates the humanity within this dire situation. At times it’s even playful, including a wonderfully clever scene where Jade experiences a joyful liberation as she ventures out in a chador.

For Knight, in lieu of any formal counselling, it is a relief to know she found her experience on set positive and psychologically helpful. However, in the light of the recent furore surrounding Reality TV exploitation (something that Knight herself experienced), Dirty God is a reminder that casting real life victims of trauma perhaps requires greater understanding or even regulation. Nonetheless, this film is a timely and powerful portrayal of what is, horrifyingly, an increasingly common type of assault in this and many other countries. 

- Reviewed by Wendy Lloyd, an Open University BSc Psychology graduate and film critic.

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