Newcomer Vicky Knight is resoundingly impressive as the steely yet fragile Jade, flung into an unfamiliar world where her one currency – conforming to classical beauty standards – is no longer available to her. Knight’s scars are her own, and she brings a wealth of lived experience to bear in this role, her quiet dignity and simmering anger infusing her audience to blood-boiling effect, and enabling her character to do some reckless, stupid and indeed utterly reprehensible things without ever losing our sympathy. By any standards it’s an impressive debut (for Polak too, her third feature but first in the English language), and Knight’s assured performance makes for an engrossing and affecting 100 minutes. She fares less well with her (admittedly very infrequent) soliloquies, occasionally struggling to make the words sound fully owned, but when bouncing off others she absolutely soars, and her physicality and world-weary expressiveness are mesmeric.
Similarly Polak’s use of dreamlike expressionistic sequences to pepper and break up her unflinching kitchen sink drama is deft and hypnotic, giving us a window into the hallucinatory realm of Jade’s mind post-trauma. In another director’s hands these might come across as incongruous, but here Polak’s keen eye and canny restraint ensures we are almost unaware of the tonal and stylistic shifts, suddenly finding ourselves immersed in a fantastical world removed from the grim reality of a few moments before, yet also inextricably linked to it.
Ultimately 'Dirty God' serves to remind us just how cruel the world can be to one to has already suffered unimaginable cruelty. Even those who are supposedly in Jade’s corner are constantly re-emphasising that her life is now effectively over because she’s lost her looks, and it could be said that the real villain of the piece is not her assailant but oppressive and ever-prevalent ideas of feminine beauty. Jade is presented as a fiercely sexual being, but any time she takes control of her own image, her destiny or her sexuality, she is roundly taken advantage of and punished for it. The real eye-opener is that the unthinking cruelty that is visited upon her again and again throughout the film could easily befall any female-presenting person who doesn’t conform to societal expectation, but her sudden newfound disfigurement allows her and us to examine this in sharp relief. Just when she’s most in need of love and validation, she has it cruelly snatched away by a society that is stupid and broken, far more than she is. “He destroyed you” her mother tells her ruefully. “No,” she responds defiantly, “He didn’t”.
Jade’s skin is innocent in all of this. We’re trained by our culture to see features such as hers as the problem, a taboo to be hidden or pitied. In fact the issue is within and without, her flesh merely a wall between two toxic wells of prejudice, one external, the other tragically internalised. Throughout the film she must find workarounds to enable her to partake in the things she enjoyed before her assault, even things as innocuous as walking down the street without being harassed. Then one remembers that as a teenage girl in South London she probably couldn’t do that anyway, and we are reminded that her facial scars really aren’t the problem here, and that the people who commit these crimes are only afforded their power to create long-lasting harm by a complicit populace who place a corrosive ideal of beauty over all else, including basic human compassion.