Desert Flower is just like Pretty Woman, if Pretty Woman were also about genital mutilation in Somalia (which I believe it originally was). Sherry Horman directs the true story of Somalian nomad Waris Dirie, who fled to London, and eventually became a world-famous supermodel. It’s the kind of rags-to-riches tale that audiences love, provided they don’t get bummed out by the pervasive politicising and genital mutilation.
Model/actress/mainly model Liya Kebede stars as Waris; we first meet her as a young homeless woman wandering the streets of London, eventually raising the ire of a TopShop employee and wannabe ballerina Marylin, played by the always-wonderful Sally Hawkins. For reasons that are not really explained – but then again, not really important – Marilyn takes in Waris as her roommate, and the two forge a friendship that will allow Waris to share with her some very private information – that at the age of three, she underwent a female circumcision, as is tradition in Somalia.
Too depressing? Don’t worry. It’s not long before Waris is spotted by famed photographer Terry Donaldson (Timothy Spall, as creepily charming as always), and she gets her big break as a model. This may be the only film to intercut condemnations of the Somalian treatment of women and scenes of genital disfigurement with peppy, fashion-shoot montages. It’s as if Richard Curtis and Ben Elton were asked to write and direct a film about a controversial, highly-charged, socio-political drama. Then again, at least they would have cast Bill Nighy in one of the roles.
What excuses Desert Flower from its wild tonal inconsistencies – including a character who goes from being an adoring doofus to Ike Turner from one scene to the next – are the performances, particularly Sally Hawkins as the always-supportive, yet fragile BFF. Anthony Mackie from The Hurt Locker and Meera Syal from, ahem, The Kumars at No. 42 also turn in some nice work in small roles.
Desert Flower tells an important story, and shines a light on one of humanity’s greatest ongoing atrocities. It is also, at times, a sweet little biopic about a homeless girl who becomes a supermodel. Sadly, these are not two great tastes that go great together. Its two halves of two good movies, that together, equal a merely OK one. That being said, although we’re barely two months into the year, Desert Flower is already one of the highest grossing films of 2011 worldwide. Just goes to show – people love a good fashion montage.