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Originally published Thursday, March 31, 2011 at 3:04 PM

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Movie review

'Desert Flower': A harrowing tradition and a Somalian's journey to a new life

A movie review of "Desert Flower," writer-director Sherry Hormann's entertaining biography starring Liya Kebede as Waris Durie, a female-circumcision survivor who became a model.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

'Desert Flower,' with Liya Kebede, Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, Juliet Stevenson, Soraya Omar-Scego. Written and directed by Sherry Hormann, based on a novel by Waris Dirie and Cathleen Miller. 124 minutes. Rated R for some violent content, a scene of sexuality and language. Pacific Place.

"Desert Flower" feels like four movies rolled into one — a fact-based rags-to riches story; a "Devil Wears Prada"-style satire of the fashion industry; a modern romantic fairy tale; and a message movie about the horrors of female circumcision.

The most entertaining episode is the satire, thanks to Juliet Stevenson and Timothy Spall, as London professionals who discover the modeling potential of a beautiful Somalian child, Waris Dirie.

Stevenson is hilariously strident, Spall is much more subtle, and they're equally effective. Somewhere in- between is Sally Hawkins as Dirie's spirited sidekick.

Easily the most powerful episodes deal with female mutilation. Without becoming unbearably graphic, the filmmakers suggest rather than show the botched removal of Dirie's genitalia at the age of 3.

The most shocking episode, set in a modern hospital where centuries-old cultural traditions and peer pressure continue to fuel a barbaric practice, has almost nothing to do with surgery. The focus here is on male dominance, which is reflected not only in the African sequences but in Dirie's green-card marriage to a possessive white janitor.

Based on Dirie's autobiography, "Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad" (cowritten by Cathleen Miller) is less successful as a Cinderella fairy tale. Written and directed by German filmmaker Sherry Hormann, it works as well as it does because of the performances she's drawn from a solid cast.

Soraya Omar-Scego is believable as the young Dirie, and the Vogue model Liya Kebede is even better as the adult Dirie, whose 1997 women's-rights speech at the United Nations is re-created here. Still, you can't help cheering on Stevenson, especially when her character insists that she deserves a movie of her own.

John Hartl:

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