@Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Mon 1 Jul 2019

It would be too easy to portray the victim of a horrific acid attack as a saint; a martyr defined entirely through the act that scarred her for life.  Dutch filmmaker Sach Polak eschews easy sympathy in favour of an incisive portrait of someone who has to find a way to cope with life-changing injuries when they had yet to figure out who they were as a person.  A stunning debut performance from Vicky Knight, a real-life burns survivor grounds Dirty God in unflinching, confrontational reality, even if the story occasionally takes the soft option.

Jade (Knight) is leaving hospital following a vicious acid attack by her ex-boyfriend.  A single mother (her attacker is the father of her daughter) from an unstable home, Jade is a brash and immature young woman whose life of parties must now be completely reassessed.  Can she adjust to a life where the male attention she is used to is now unlikely to be welcome, and can she find the strength to grow and mature for her child?

From the beginning, Polak lingers in unsettling details on the ridges and rolls of Jade’s injuries.  DoP Ruben Impens (an expert chronicler of youth in crisis from Raw and Beautiful Boy) films her skin like an alien landscape, which for Jade it is.  Jade’s friends are happy to accept her altered appearance,  Her mother (Katherine Kelly) is more reticent, and her little girl has to be told, heartbreakingly, that her mum is a ‘good monster’.  Dirty God is no wallow in misery porn however, although it doesn’t stint on harrowing moments.  Although she appears “stuck with this fucking dog’s dinner,” as she puts it, Jade’s recovery is marked with humour and resilience.  It also includes the reevaluation of herself as a sexual being, with tender, excruciating and poignant results.

The incredible Vicky Knight rises to the demands of Polak’s unsentimental approach fearlessly.  The scars she received in a childhood fire may have been prosthetically enhanced to more closely match those of acid burns, but the bravery and fortitude displayed by Jade are hauled from Knight’s own reserves.  There’s natural belligerence and naturalism in her performance that the best directors can draw out from a non-professional, so there isn’t a single moment where Jade doesn’t feel like a rounded, authentic person.  The frank scenes of her reclaiming the sexual aspect of her body in front of a webcam are great examples of this, and a vital part of Jade’s recovery that a less rigorous director would have baulked at depicting.

It looks very like director and star have collaborated closely on the character and her story to the very limit of what Knight would have been comfortable with.  There are no easy victories for Jade.  The anonymous internet interactions may have felt positive at the time, but are soon hurled back in her face with humiliating results.  Yet, she takes this in her stride.

For all the complexities and authenticity of the character, there are a few plot strands that ring a false note.  The subplot involving Jade being taken in by a scam for cheap plastic surgery comes across as a cheap way of adding a further hurdle to overcome, as well as facilitating a love triangle between Jade, her friend Shami (Rebecca Stone), and the handsome Naz (Bluey Robinson).  This strand itself is teased and then left unresolved.  Perhaps the least convincing moment is Jade being crowned employee of the month at the call centre at which she works.  It’s not only unlikely that the pugnacious Jade would be an exemplary customer service advisor, but it’s a moment of easy uplift and sentiment that’s worthy of a much lesser film.

Dirty God is an otherwise nuanced film that’s unafraid to present its subject in an occasionally less favourable light.  Polak’s a brilliant director, but it will be Vicky Knight that will deservedly earn the bulk of the praise for her remarkable performance.