“MONSTER”. THIS is the first word Rae says upon seeing her mother Jade (Vicky Knight) after the slew of operations and skin grafts she has had since her ex-boyfriend threw acid in her face. Not the best response, obviously, but Rae is two. Lisa (Katherine Kelly), Jade’s mother, is old enough to know better: “But it’s a nice monster, Rae,” she explains to the little girl. There are some wounds that no procedures can heal, but as scarred emotionally and physically as Jade is, she has been pronounced ready to leave hospital to try to put her life back together.
“Dirty God” is directed by Sacha Polak, the Dutch film-maker known for “Hemel” (2012) and “Zurich” (2015), both of which won prizes at the Berlin film festival. The movie is startling for its raw tactility: the opening credits play over close-ups of Jade’s burned skin, pitted and gnawed where the acid fell. (The actress, Ms Knight, is herself the survivor of an arson attack; burns cover a third of her body and, when not acting, she works in the burn unit where she was treated.) These shots linger like they might over a foreign landscape, and indeed when Jade leaves the cocoon of her hospital ward, she finds that the topography of her world has changed utterly, even through so much has stayed the same. She is still living in her mother’s small council flat in London, filled with shop-lifted clothes that Lisa sells, while Jade’s best friend, Shami (Rebecca Stone) lives a few floors down. But now Rae cries in fear when Jade tries to hold her and, unbeknownst to the heroine, her mother has been allowing members of her ex-boyfriend’s family to visit: a betrayal that Lisa doesn’t seem able to understand or acknowledge.
Ms Polak has resisted the temptation to create a stereotypical victim. Jade swears, makes bad decisions, burps in the faces of strangers, makes friends and crude jokes, and glories in the pleasure to be had from sex and masturbation. On her first night home from hospital she goes out clubbing with Shami, happy for her mother to take responsibility for Rae. The night is a disaster: Jade endures the horrified stares of men who once would have made a pass and Shami has started dating Naz, with whom Jade shared a flirtation before the attack. Jade is soon scouring the internet for a plastic surgeon who might be able to restore her smooth, unblemished skin—and perhaps her old life.
Of the real monster of the piece, Jade’s ex-boyfriend, the viewer sees blessedly little. He appears to Jade in dreams as a creature with clawed hands and a ruff of crow-black feathers. When she does see him in the flesh, in court, she is so scared that her bladder releases, urine spurting dark and wet into the fabric of her fawn-coloured trousers. Small wonder she seeks release from her appearance, at one point, in a full black niqab. ”You’re not one of those wotsits now are you now?” Lisa asks. “How’s this going to help?”
Ultimately, of course, Lisa is right. Neither hiding behind borrowed face coverings nor investing in too-good-to-be-true promises of surgery in Morocco are the answer. Instead Jade has to accept the unacceptable and pursue, with grace, happiness in her new life.
“Dirty God” is screening in Britain now