Film Review: Desert Flower

This inspiring story of a nomad-turned-model is executed in the style of a made-for-TV movie.

Shows like “America’s Next Top Model” pride themselves on plucking girls from obscure corners of Middle America and into catwalk fame. But Waris Dirie’s story tops them all. Born into a nomadic life in Somalia, Waris (Liya Kebede) was discovered by a renowned photographer in London in the late 1980s and launched into a career as a supermodel. She later turned her celebrity into a platform to speak out against female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice that almost killed her and led to lasting problems.

Desert Flower, an adaptation of her book, preserves the inspirational and singular tenor of her story, but fumbles its execution. Certain lines feel obvious, too expository, or blatantly foreshadow events. “Don’t ever leave me,” Waris’ brother pleads in that familiar way that signals just the opposite. Mere scenes later, she takes off for good. Waris ends up in London, working as a maid for relatives in the Somalia embassy. When war breaks out in Somalia, she stays, on her own.

Surprisingly, the movie focuses little on culture shock. Post-modeling career, we see Waris navigating a sleek modern apartment and using its microwave with ease, but in the early scenes in London, she seems to withdraw from situations that puzzle her or depend on her comprehension of the English language. Throughout the movie, her feelings remain closed off from viewers. Her personality cannot be described beyond rough indicators like “determined” and “modest.” The film feels just like the celebrity memoir it is: matter-of-fact descriptions of events that avoid deeper probing of the person’s psyche.

After befriending a shopgirl/would-be ballerina (Sally Hawkins), Waris does receive a tutoring in Western sexuality, but a heartbreaking one. She realizes English people don’t have to undergo female genital mutilation, while the pain from her condition eventually leads her to the hospital. In the movie’s most powerful scene, a Somali hospital aide translates the doctor’s request for her to schedule an operation into a stinging indictment of her character, unbeknownst to those around them. “Why are you letting a white man look at you?” He asks. “Our customs are not their concern.”

The final portion of the movie focuses on Waris’ campaign to raise awareness about FGM, which includes a speech at the United Nations. Unfortunately, since most of the movie builds to the launch of her modeling career, this part feels tacked on and incongruous with the rest of the story. If writer-director Sherry Hormann had better integrated these two subjects, perhaps the movie wouldn’t feel so overlong. Hormann also imposes a melodramatic, TV-movie style that can only hurt the movie’s theatrical prospects, though it’s leaps and bounds above the typical Lifetime Original Movie.

Desert Flower has already earned $9 million in Germany, where Waris’ book was a long-running bestseller. Box-office prospects here will be more limited. Though straightforward in its telling, Waris’ story is still quite affecting, and the subject matter fresh and eye-opening.