Desert Flower is a good movie with noble aspirations but it's not a great movie. And it needs to be. Considering its subject matter and broad scope of characters and landscape, Desert Flower comes across as a bunch of posies pulled from the ground rather than a florist's carefully designed bouquet.
Writer/director Sherry Horman is in over her head with the true story of Waris Dirie, a supermodel who escaped tribal abuse in Somalia to dazzle on the globe's fashion runways and who was the first international voice to decry female genital mutilation. In the film, we learn that 6,000 girls are mutilated each day in a tradition that is carried out not only in Africa and Asia but also Europe and the United States.
The source material is Dirie's 1998 autobiography, The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad. After being mutilated at the age of 3, Dirie was sold to become the fourth wife of a man old enough to be her grandfather. Dirie escaped, surviving a punishing 100-mile trek across the desert to a safe haven, where her grandmother spirited her off to London.
Unfortunately, Dirie was an indentured servant in England, living in the basement of the Somalian embassy. She escaped to the streets and was homeless in London for six years. Dirie's survival was a miracle but what happened next became legend.
While mopping floors in a fast-food restaurant, Dirie was discovered by famed fashion photographer Terry Donaldson. Soon, Dirie was gracing the covers of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar and eventually became one of the globe's highest paid supermodels. It's breathtaking stuff, which is why the book is highly recommended. The movie? Not so much.
Liya Kebede plays Dirie, a fine bit of casting considering Kebede is a supermodel herself. Surprisingly, Kebede's scenes as a homeless woman ring more true than her moments on the catwalk. Kebede is supported by some of Britain's finest character actors, including the always-fun Sally Hawkins (Made in Dagenham) as Marylin, Dirie's kooky shop-girl roommate. Juliet Stevenson (Bend it Like Beckham) plays Lucinda, a mash-up of several real-life characters who served as Dirie's fashion agents. Timothy Spall (The King's Speech) is Donaldson, the photographer who perceives Dirie's inner and outer beauty. Given all this talent and wonderful plot, I had hoped for a more cohesive cinematic experience, but director Horman fails to weave together all of the fine threads.
The mental and physical subjugation of women may not attract large movie-going audiences, but if the subject matter is important to you, you might want to see Desert Flower. Or since the film disappoints, read the book. Its imagery is much more compelling.
Desert Flower opens Friday, April 8 at The Flicks. Part of the proceeds for the 7 p.m. performance on April 8 will be donated to the International Rescue Committee.