Virgil Films // 2011 // 128 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 19th, 2011
The extraordinary true story of the woman who crossed a desert and changed the world.
"I want a better life."
As a young child, Waris Dirie (Liya Kebede, Lord of War) was forced to undergo the horrific process of female circumcision. Her childhood was harsh and full of misery, and her life as an adult hasn't been dramatically better. For the past few years, she's been an impoverished cleaning lady living in London, and her only friend is a struggling wannabe ballerina (Sally Hawkins, Never Let Me Go). One day, Waris is discovered by a famed fashion photographer (Timothy Spall, Sweeney Todd) who gives her an opportunity to start a new life. However, there are still numerous obstacles that stand in the way of Waris finding true happiness.
As the tagline suggests, the story of Waris Dirie presented in this film is both true and extraordinary. However, an extraordinary true story does not always produce an extraordinary film. Desert Flower comes close at times, but continually finds ways to undercut itself. There are scenes of intense emotional power and unflinching reality presented in the film, but they sit uncomfortably alongside scenes of biopic convention and unpersuasive fairy tale sentiment.
While I think it's important to avoid the distinction between scenes containing intense content and scenes that are actually high-caliber, Desert Flower's strongest moments are indeed its bleakest. The scenes that will remain in the memory long after the film concludes are those dealing with Waris' circumcision, particularly an excruciating sequence in which we watch her 3-year-old face as the procedure is performed. It's an angry, damning indictment of a barbaric process. Another painful yet tender moment occurs between Kebede and Hawkins, as the latter begins to realize what has been done to the former. These are scenes that tower above some of tiresome trivialities the film engages in during its weaker moments.
However, I'm not suggesting that the film would have been better off if it had disposed entirely of its lighter moments. There are playful shades of comic relief in the interaction between Kebede and Hawkins in other scenes, plus a gently offbeat performance from Timothy Spall, which reminds us of what an enjoyably distinctive presence he can be. Best of all is a riotous, scene-stealing turn from Juliet Stevenson, who basically does a more persuasive variation on Meryl Streep's performance in The Devil Wears Prada. While we're on the subject of actors, it's worth noting that just about everyone in the cast serves the role they've been given well.
So, the subject matter is there and the cast delivers. What Desert Flower needed was a steadier hand at the wheel. It's clear that writer/director Sherry Hormann (her resume is otherwise comprised of little-known German films) has talent, but it's as if her success from scene to scene is being determined by a roll of the dice. How could the later scenes involving Waris' on-paper-only "husband" have been handled so poorly? Why does a film that contains some very natural, real moments of dialogue also contain clunky scenes that seem to have been transported into the film from a Kate Hudson movie? And why, oh why did the filmmakers feel a need to insert the pointless romantic subplot involving a New Yorker played by Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker)? It's baffling, honestly. The film's weaknesses aren't overwhelming enough to destroy the film, but they damage it considerably.
Desert Flower arrives on hi-def sporting a very attractive 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. The level of detail is spectacular throughout, flesh tones are warm and natural and the film's barren African locations look visually stunning and yet forbidding (the London locations are a bit less striking, but the marvelously expressive faces of actors like Spall and Hawkins are enough to compensate for that). Audio is equally excellent, with clean dialogue, immersive sound design and a well-mixed but occasionally overbearing original score. An early scene in a nightclub will give your speakers quite a workout, but it's noticeably louder than anything else in the film. Supplements include an interview with Kebede (17 minutes) and a trailer.
Desert Flower occasionally fumbles its potent source material, but manages to get enough things right to merit a look. Still, there's a frustrating sense of "what could have been" lingering around the film. The Blu-ray looks and sounds fantastic.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Virgil Films
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 128 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R