Based on her autobiography, Desert Flower tells the story of fashion model Waris Dirie from her Somalian roots to the cover of Vogue magazine, highlighting the despicable practice of female circumcision that still continues today. This is not an ordinary topic for a biopic; its sinister theme should make the movie unmissable but under inexperienced director Sherry Horman it is nothing more than a hodge-podge of sitcom and drama, and the error is unforgivable.
We first see Waris in a London Top Shop, contemplating a little shoplifting. She’s dead broke, sleeps on the streets and isn’t averse to rummaging through rubbish bins for food. Shop assistant Marylin (Sally Hawkins, as annoyingly chirpy as ever) warns her of the perils of pilfering which, to non-English speaking Waris, is the first positive thing to happen to her in the six years she’s lived in London. She follows Marylin to her cheap accommodation and basically foists herself upon her. Marylin gets her a job in a burger bar, buys English text books, and the girls bond.
It is while sweeping floors and cleaning slop at the burger joint that she’s spotted by fashion photographer Terry Donaldson (Timothy Spall). In real life, Waris was discovered by Terence Donovan in a McDonalds, but for some reason the names have been changed here, don’t ask me why. Still, the fact remains that Donovan/Donaldson saw something in the bone structure of the under-nourished cleaning lady that convinced him to give her his card. She’s all for binning it straight away but, thankfully, Marylin knows her fashion and persuades her, several months later, to pop round and see him. She’s soon on her way.
While this is going on we learn, through remembered flashbacks, of Waris’ childhood (with some spectacular shots of African scenery) and the wickedness of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), which occurs when the clitoris is cut off with a razor blade and both inner and outer lips of the vulva are similarly dispatched. The whole mess is then stitched up ready for the prospective groom to uncut it years later, proving beyond question that his new bride is a virgin. Without any anesthetic or sterilized equipment, the operation can frequently go wrong, resulting in practically every illness under the sun. This operation was carried out by Waris’ own mother not as punishment, but in the fervent belief that it is the right thing to do. Mercifully the act itself is only implied, but it is still horrific enough to make you cover your eyes.
Director Horman has a problem. The subject matter of FGM is so distasteful that, were she to keep the same tone throughout Desert Flower, it would end up being a horridly turgid joyless movie. To counteract this, she chooses to treat Waris’ life outside Somalia as one big joke. I wrote a note down as I watched, suggesting the name of the spin-off sitcom: It’s A Snip! Truly, the balance between the two strands of the story is too disparate; frolicking with Marylin or meeting a handsome hunky guy in a nightclub — at precisely the time the music changes from techno to a slow-dance number — is one thing, harrowing scenes in her Somalian homeland are quite another and the abrupt change does this movie no favors.
Waris is played by Ethiopian model Liya Kebede as an adult, and her limited acting ability shows. Undeniably beautiful no matter how hard Horman tries to cover her, Kebede struggles to convince that she’s anything other than a star. Sally Hawkins, as already mentioned, has done her cheeky London chappie routine once too often for me already in her young career, and Craig Parkinson (as a janitor who aids Waris from the clutches of the Immigration department) is also sadly limited, just as he was in 2010’s Northern Soul tribute SoulBoy.
I applaud Waris Dirie unreservedly. She became a United Nations Special Ambassador tasked with speaking out against the vile mutilation committed against her sister Africans — a clear-cut case of a person using their fame for worthy causes — and continues in this role to this day. I’m sure her autobiography, also named Desert Flower (her name, translated into English), is a tragic story and a worthy read; the movie adaptation, however, should have been handed to somebody with surer hands than Sherry Horman.