Inspired by the spate of acid attacks that have plagued Britain in recent times, Dirty God could so easily be an exploitative feature. Instead, it’s a drama that truly gets under the skin of its lead character, Jade – a single mother who, when we join her, emerges from hospital after multiple plastic surgeries for scars over her face and torso. Played by Vicky Knight, who was left with burns over 33% of her body after an arson attack on her flat when she was just 8 years-old, Jade is forced to wear a clear-plastic mask, just the first of the indignities she must suffer in a cruel, unforgiving world.
When she sees her young daughter – looked after by her mother (Katherine Kelly) – the child begins to cry. It’s a heartbreaking moment in a film full of them. Understandably, Jade is desperate for more surgeries to reduce the scarring. The doctors, however, refuse to operate further, at least for the time being, due to the way her skin will react. Trying to pick up her old life seems near-impossible. Most friends don’t really want to know; only the party-loving Shami (Rebecca Stone) has stayed loyal to her, but even their friendship is fraught with difficulties, with Jade still harbouring feelings for her boyfriend Naz (Bluey Robinson).
Set in London, Polak takes an impressionistic view of the city here – as Jade drifts between the council estate where she lives and the call centre where she finds a job (only to be tormented by some of her co-workers). There are moments of kindness throughout the horror that she faces; the occasional friendly face that looks past her scars. But this is a tough film to watch, notably in the unsettling scene where Jade must face her attacker in court.
It’s easy to empathise with Jade, living in a world where physical looks are heralded above all else, be it on social or in traditional media. Of course, she must learn that age-old cliché that beauty is only skin deep – and learn it she does but through the hardest route possible. Knight is excellent in her first-ever role; it’s an exposing part, both inside and out, but she does a tremendous job. It would be heartening to see her work again on screen.
Dirty God opens on 7 June. For more details, visit Modern Films
1. Still from Dirty God.