Desert Flower -- Film Review

High fashion and female circumcision make for an uneasy mix in this glossy triumph-of-the-spirit biography.

MILL VALLEY, Calif. -- “Desert Flower,” based on the autobiography by Waris Dirie, a Somali immigrant who became a top fashion model and social activist, is a moving, survival-against-all-odds story that forgoes subtlety and overlooks contradictions in favor of the larger message it strives to deliver: the damage done by female circumcision, a practice that maims millions of young girls physically and emotionally, and the brave woman who wouldn’t be broken and dared to speak out against it.

Slick production values, exotic African scenery, a cast featuring veteran British character actors and a triumph-over-adversity saga are all pluses.

The subject matter — which German writer-director Sherry Hormann addresses with frankness and includes a horrifying, graphic re-enactment of Dirie’s genital mutilation as a child, seen in a flashback — is something audiences will seek to avoid. National Geographic Entertainment plans on releasing the film domestically in February.

When a barely pubescent Dirie, the daughter of impoverished nomads in Somalia, discovers she’s been sold into marriage by her father, she escapes on the eve of her wedding, fleeing across miles of parched earth; these early scenes of a desperate but astonishingly determined and self-reliant girl are among the film’s strongest. Eventually landing in London and working as an illegal immigrant, Dirie, now a willowy, regal beauty (played with quiet conviction by Ethiopian model Liya Kebede), is taken in by a sweetly wacky, aspiring dancer (Sally Hawkins).

In short order, she attracts the attention of a famous fashion photographer (a rumpled Timothy Spall), a slovenly fellow who apparently disdains shoes and shaving in equal measure, and is hired by a brusque, bitchy modeling agent (the usually delightful Juliet Stevenson, hamming it up), a diva who treats her eager charges like chattel, inspects their bodies for flaws and makes it clear they’re money-making machines.

The script glosses over the more distasteful aspects of this arrangement by turning it into caricature and playing it for laughs. A love interest (Anthony Mackie) appears briefly, but potential complications, given Dirie’s traumatic history, are alluded to but not explored.

Although Dirie’s looks and the fashion industry were her ticket out, the superficial glitz of that world seems at odds with the serious, profoundly disturbing issue at the film’s core. Proudly strutting down the catwalk is extolled here as a pinnacle of human achievement as opposed to, say, graduating from Oxford, though the film does culminate with her speaking at the U.N.

Yes, Dirie came a long way from being sold off in Somalia but, even in the upper echelons of the modeling profession, her body was her passport to a future. Rather than examine those troubling implications or what might have become of her if she hadn’t been beautiful, the film opts for uplift, driven home by Martin Todsharow’s soaring, sometimes overbearing score.

Shooting in Cologne, Germany, and Djibouti, Ken Kelsch’s cinematography transforms the rocky African desert into a lunar landscape of forbidding beauty, a vivid contrast to the hyped-up theatricality of the fashion runway.

Venue: Mill Valley (Calif.) Film Festival (National Geographic)
Production: Desert Flower Filmproductions in association with Dor Film, Majestic Filmproduktion, MTM West Television & Film
Cast: Liya Kebede, Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, Juliet Stevenson, Craig Parkinson, Anthony Mackie, Meera Syal, Soraya Omar-Scego
Director-screenwriter: Sherry Hormann
Producer: Peter Herrmann
Director of photography: Ken Kelsch
Production designer: Jamie Leonard

Music: Martin Todsharow
Costume designer: Gabriele Binder
Editor: Clara Fabry
Rated R, 124 minutes