(2009) Biodrama (National Geographic) Liya Kebede, Sally Hawkins, Craig Parkinson, Meera Syal, Anthony Mackie, Juliet Stevenson, Timothy Spall, Soraya Omar-Scego, Matt Kaufman, Tim Seyfi, William de Coverly, Mahamed Mohamoud Egueh, Teresa Churcher. Directed by Sherry Horman
Africa has amazing vistas, incredible beauty that can’t be properly appreciated except in person. She also has her share of beautiful women, some who have gone on to international stardom as actresses and models. However, Africa has also had more than its share of shame in regards to how she treats her women.
Waris Dirie (Kebede) is a beautiful Somalian who lives in a nomadic tribe. Hers is a family of goat herders who live a simple lifestyle. However when she is a little girl she suffers a horrible tradition – female genital circumcision, in which her genitalia are cut so that she may not feel pleasure during the sexual act and her labia is then sewn together so that her husband may be assured that his new wife is a virgin until he cuts her cord, so to speak. It is a barbaric custom (not found in the Koran by the way) that certain African tribes adhere to. Many women die from infection and botched cuttings every year.
Waris however survives and is eventually promised in marriage as a third wife to a repulsive old man. Rather than accept this fate, she walks away, literally – traversing the desert to Mogadishu to find her grandmother, who sends her to London with an uncle who happens to be the Somali ambassador to England. When he returns home after the end of his term, she remains. She meets the ditzy shopgirl Marylin (Hawkins) who helps get her a job scrubbing floors at a local MacDonald’s. There she is discovered by fashion photographer Terry Donaldson (Spall).
With the help of a rather grumpy agent named Lucinda (Stevenson) she soon rises to the top of the modeling world. Despite a few pitfalls (including some sexualized shoots which clearly make her uncomfortable), she becomes a superstar, developing a relationship with Harold Jackson (Mackie), a neighbor. However, during an interview when she talks frankly about her circumcision her life is changed forever as she moves from model to activist, becoming the face of female genital circumcision and in the process it’s leading advocate in the fight against it.
This is all very compelling on paper but sadly this movie doesn’t exist on paper but on celluloid and director Horman elects to waste a lot of time with non-essentials, particularly in regards to her pre-model time in London when it seems the story is moving in a certain direction but takes an excruciatingly long time to get there.
Kebede, a Nigerian supermodel herself, does a surprisingly solid turn as Waris. It is fortunate that she resembles her peer facially but she carries herself with a great deal of dignity and grace that African women seem to have in abundance. She also captures her character’s shame and embarrassment at having been mutilated.
Hawkins and Spall do well in their roles, as does Stevenson and Syal as an aunt. The Somalian sequences are beautifully desolate. It’s a pretty good-looking film. It’s just a shame the filmmakers fumbled the ball a bit when it comes to getting the power of their message across. In more capable hands this could have been a terrific film.
WHY RENT THIS: Compelling story and Kebede shows great promise in her debut.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unfocused and muddled too often. Wastes time on trivial aspects and seems to relegate the central theme almost to the background at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a sex scene (although not graphic) and some modeling nudity. There’s also a little bit of violence but the theme may be rather rough to discuss with children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Waris Dirie had a small role in the James Bond film The Living Daylights with Timothy Dalton.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an interview with lead actress Liya Kebede that is quite interesting.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $14.6M on an unknown production budget; I’d guess this was a big hit.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Skin
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Django Unchained