Desert Flower is the valiant, unbelievably true dramatization of the extraordinary life of Waris Dirie, an impoverished child-goatherd from a tribe of nomads in Somalia who escaped at the age of 13 from horrors you cannot conjure in a nightmare, and ended up an international superstar model on the cover of Vogue. Based on Ms. Dirie’s best-selling 1997 biography, it’s an amazing epic, too big for the screen to contain, and vastly more engaging between the pages. Still, it’s a journey out of primitive darkness unlike anything you’ve seen before, or anything you are likely to see again.
The film begins six years after her grandmother helps her escape, after she finds her way to London, and after she is ejected from her job as a scrubwoman in the Somali embassy due to the breakout of the Somalian War. Living on the streets in the only hot-pink Muslim hijab she owns, rummaging through garbage cans for food, and sleeping in doorways, she is taken in by her first friend, a cheerful but flaky Goth cockney shopgirl named Marilyn (another colorful, riveting character portrait in the versatility scrapbook of Sally Hawkins). Waris learns English and survives by mopping floors in a Notting Hill burger joint, where she catches the eye of a famous British fashion photographer, played with scruffy charm by Timothy Spall. The Cinderella story climbs, rung by rung, until she at last falls into the hands of an eccentric Kay Thompson-style modeling agency mogul (a great, flamboyant performance by the great Juliet Stevenson) who sculpts her to stardom. At last on her way to a better life and a real career, only to discover her passport expired six years earlier, poor Waris struggles with British immigration to avoid deportation, and succumbs to a miserable marriage to a man she hates to secure a work permit. Did I say Cinderella? I meant Elsie Dinsmore.
Eschewing a linear narrative, German director Sherry Hormann opts for a fragmented style that juxtaposes past and present to show just how arduous the odyssey of Waris Dirie really was. In London, her transformation from homeless illiterate and illegal immigrant, to spectacular runway model who winced with pain stuffing her scarred feet into her first six-inch stilettos, is challenging enough. But it’s the harrowing flashbacks where we wince with pain ourselves: sold into marriage to a man old enough to be her grandfather, forcibly held down at the age of three while her sexual organs were mutilated with a rusty razor blade and sewn tightly back together with a thorn for a needle, fighting off rapists, and facing a lifetime of torture and servitude (her beloved sister bled to death from the same tribal procedure) in a tribal society where women are still considered chattel. The barbaric circumcision scene is, in itself, almost unbearable to watch. The scene in a London clinic where Marilyn takes her, and the Somali translator who lies to her about every word of advice the doctors offer, is heartbreaking. Today Waris is not only a splendiferous symbol of elegance and beauty, but also a dedicated women’s right activist, appointed as special United Nations ambassador to speak out against genital mutilation. Despite her success convincing nations across the globe to pass laws declaring female circumcision illegal, a postscript informs the audience that 6,000 girls per day are still subjected to this barbaric ritual. Every scene, every shard of information contains elements of surprise and enlightenment about one of the most courageous women ever dramatized on the screen. And in a pluperfect performance, captivating model-actress Liya Kebede is so ravishing, poignant and overwhelming you cannot take your eyes off her. She turns into Waris Dirie the way Marion Cotillard channeled Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose.
My only caveat: the material is filled with so many conflicts and contrasts that it sometimes has a jarring effect on the most focused viewer. When you reduce so many pieces of a puzzle to fit into the time restrictions of a two-hour motion picture, the heroine’s rise to stardom happens too fast and the story gets choppy and implausible. Still, it all really happened and in a grateful departure from the usual Hollywood biopic, Desert Flower achieves both poetry and brutality in equal doses. Waris Dirie is an inspiration, inside and out, and so is this movie.
Running time 109 minutes
Written and directed by Sherry Hormann
Starring Liya Kebede, Sally Hawkins, Craig Parkinson