A scarred beauty
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, March 25, 2011
"Desert Flower" has all the trappings of a good fairy tale, especially those moments of despair so extreme that a happy ending seems almost impossible. But what makes Sherry Hormann's film astounding is that it's real. The autobiography-turned-biopic is based on the life of African nomad, supermodel and activist Waris Dirie.
Born in Somalia, Dirie escaped marriage at 13 (she was to become the fourth wife of a 65-year-old man) by walking alone for days through the desert to find a grandmother she had never met. She then moved to London, where running water was a marvel, escalators a nightmare and the language incomprehensible, and found work as a cleaning woman at McDonald's. While mopping the floors, she was discovered by a renowned fashion photographer who turned her into a supermodel. After finding fame, Dirie dropped a bombshell: At the age of 3, she had suffered ritual female genital mutilation, a horrifying practice that meant
lifelong pain for her and death for a number of her family members. She then traded in her globetrotting life to work as a high-level advocate for the elimination of female genital mutilation.
The drama of the proceedings is intense but nicely balanced by the comedy in Hormann's script. The fish-out-of-water elements yield some laughs as Dirie, played by Ethiopian model Liya Kebede, appears to have learned what little English she knows from the Weather Channel and game shows. A number of eccentric characters portrayed by a who's-who of British actors also add to the levity. Golden Globe winner Sally Hawkins plays Dirie's best friend, a goofy would-be ballerina, while Juliet Stevenson nearly steals the show as a no-nonsense modeling agent who drifts ostentatiously between English and French. Timothy Spall, last seen as Winston Churchill in "The King's Speech," plays Terry Donaldson, a kindhearted photographer who refuses to wear shoes.
But this is a movie with a message, and the most memorable scenes turn out to be the most emotionally draining. The film reenacts the ghastly procedure performed on the 3-year-old Dirie, and between the child's screams and the vultures circling overhead, it's nearly impossible to watch. It is those moments, however, that make Dirie's ultimate ascension so remarkable.
On the lighter side, a storyline featuring a potential love interest (Anthony Mackie) emerges without much resolution and feels somewhat superfluous in light of the already eventful plot. But, this being a real-life fairy tale, it's hard to fault
the screenwriter for wanting to include a prince.
Contains strong language, nudity and adult themes.