“Desert Flower” is a weighty biopic that by all rights should have bloomed more fully than it does in the hands of writer-director Sherry Hormann. That said, a lovely performance by Ethiopian supermodel-actress Liya Kebede as supermodel-activist Waris Dirie works wonders to elevate this uneven, occasionally awkward but often absorbing film.
Based on the novel by Dirie and Cathleen Miller, “Desert Flower” attempts a mini-epic telling of Dirie’s rise from dirt-poor Somali nomad to international runway superstar. Vivid, if overly earnest — and sometimes intrusive — flashbacks recount Dirie’s grueling childhood and eventual escape from Somalia at age 13. The film fares better as it charts the adult Dirie, an undocumented immigrant struggling in the shadows of London, whose chance meeting with a renowned photographer (Timothy Spall) jump-starts the striking young woman’s career as a fashion model.
Enjoyable turns by Sally Hawkins as Dirie’s flighty friend and Juliet Stevenson, playing a grandiose modeling agent, lighten the mood. But Anthony Mackie is wasted as a potential love interest.
At the story’s core, though, is the ritual female genital mutilation Dirie suffered at age 3 and how she ultimately became the first public face against this barbaric practice. The topic is tough stuff however it’s approached, but Hormann could have better calibrated its haunting presence here.
“Desert Flower.” MPAA Rating: R for some violent content, a scene of sexuality and language. In English and Somali with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes. At Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica.