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After an acid attack has left her literally scarred for life, a London lass tries to stay afloat in the looks-obsessed Instagram age in Dirty God, the first English-language film from Dutch director Sacha Polak (Hemel, Zurich). This eye-catching and sadly topical Rotterdam opening film features a fearless performance from nonprofessional actress Vicky Knight in the central role and will next travel to Sundance, where it reportedly will be the first Dutch-helmed film to play in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. It already has been sold to the Benelux and France.
Jade (Knight) is a young single mother who’s discharged from the hospital in the film’s visually arresting opening scene. After close-ups of deformed skin that looks like a flesh-colored lunar landscape, Polak and her Belgian cinematographer, Ruben Impens (Beautiful Boy), suddenly make the reflection of the protagonist appear, like a spectral image, in a hospital window. The haunting image suggests, in hindsight, nothing less than the complexities of Jade’s newfound position in the world after the attack that has forever altered her appearance. She has been reduced to something ghostly and inhuman, present but not necessarily wanting to be seen, and scary yet fascinating for those who might see her.
Jade is a working-class Londoner from an extremely modest — not to say poor — background. She has a very young daughter, Rae (Eliza Brady-Girard), who initially cries and is scared of Jade’s new appearance in a few early scenes that feel slightly overcooked for dramatic effect. Jade’s own single mother (Katherine Kelly, The Night Manager) looks more like a sibling than a parent, suggesting that the women in this family keep repeating the same mistake of getting pregnant very young and perhaps falling for the wrong men.
There’s not a lot of backstory in the loose-limbed narrative, which was written by Polak and Susanne Farrell, and what little there is can be pieced together from conversations between the protagonist and her friends and acquaintances. Mainly Dirty God observes, quite closely, how a young woman tries to adjust to the fact that her face and parts of her upper body and arms have become disfigured — by someone who was once close to her — and how this affects those around her. Polak and Impens’ camera follows Jade closely as she contends with her mostly negative-attention-grabbing appearance. At one point she dons a niqab, which almost completely covers her and thus, somewhat paradoxically, gives her more freedom because no one stares at her anymore or makes rude remarks.
A flirty friend, Naz (singer and MTV Europe host Bluey Robinson), has started going out with Jade’s friend Shami (Rebecca Stone), so that avenue seems closed to Jade in terms of love, even if she and Naz still remain attracted to each other. (Their uncomfortable chemistry is one of the film’s loveliest touches.) And while the lighting effects in the clubs she frequents might make her scars disappear every now and again, men don’t give her the time of day once they see what her ex has done to her face.
So she flees onto the web, where she can not only image-search every single thing she likes but also flirt via her webcam, in exchanges where her face isn’t necessarily the part of her that men are interested in. The internet is also where she becomes obsessed with the idea that a Moroccan plastic surgeon might be able to do what the doctors in Britain seem reluctant to do, a subplot that’s the least successful of the film’s various loose strands. This narrative thread requires a level of gullibility that Jade — perhaps lost and frustrated, yes, but also street-smart and fierce — doesn’t convincingly possess.
Polak’s debut feature, the 2012 Berlinale title Hemel, looked at a young woman’s complex family situation and how it influenced her sexual behavior. In Dirty God, there’s a similar back-and-forth between external factors and the inner thoughts, reactions and compulsions they provoke. What stands out here is Jade’s struggle to regain any sense of normalcy, even while understanding that her life before the attack was hardly picture-perfect. A very contemporary soundtrack accompanies montage sequences that provide brief moments of respite and reflection. But Polak’s edgy tale makes it clear that an acid attack that creates severe facial scarring is an attack that repeats itself over and over again, every day, in people’s reactions. It’s also something that has become tragically common; 465 acid attacks occurred in London alone in 2017.
Though other members of the cast are experienced actors, Knight is a newcomer who, much like Jade, has scars all over her upper body, the result of being caught in a fire during childhood. (Some prosthetics were used in the film as well, according to the press notes.) Knight’s Jade feels authentic in her mood swings, from frustrated to questioning, from hopeful to devastated and back, sometimes within a single scene. If anything, Polak has shown in three narrative films that she knows how to elicit strong performances from her inexperienced but frequently mesmerizing young leads.
Production companies: Viking Film Productions, UME11, A Private View, Savage Productions, The British Film Institute, Screen Ireland, British Broadcasting Corporation
Cast: Vicky Knight, Katherine Kelly, Eliza Brady-Girard, Rebecca Stone, Bluey Robinson, Dana Marineci
Director: Sacha Polak
Screenplay: Sacha Polak, Susanne Farrell
Producers: Marleen Slot, Michael Elliott
Executive producers: Frank Klein, Clea de Koning, Nicky Tuske, Isabel Davis, Eva Yates, Celine Haddad
Director of photography: Ruben Impens
Production designer: Sanne Schat
Costume designers: Sara Hakkenberg, Rine Deseure
Editor: Sander Vos
Music: Rutger Reinders
Casting: Lucy Pardee, Aisha Walters
Venue: Rotterdam Film Festival
Sales: Independent / XYZ Films
In English and Moroccan Arabic
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