Queen of the Desert (2015)

Queen of the Desert (2015)
  • Time: 125 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama | History
  • Director: Werner Herzog
  • Cast: Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Robert Pattinson, Damian Lewis


A chronicle of Gertrude Bell’s life, a traveler, writer, archaeologist, explorer, cartographer, and political attach√© for the British Empire at the dawn of the twentieth century.

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  • It would be reductive to call Gertrude Bell the female Lawrence of Arabia given that, despite their shared similarities, Bell remains better known in the Middle East where her experiences with the various tribes and love of the Arab peoples allowed her to influence their policymaking. She was a kingmaker, so goes legend, and she essentially decided the boundaries of modern-day Iraq. There is not doubt that the explorer-writer-archaeologist-scholar-adventuress led an extraordinary life that was all the more remarkable because she happened to be a woman.

    Would that Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert paid appropriate tribute to the complexities of this Englishwoman abroad. Undoubtedly David Lean’s classic epic, Lawrence of Arabia, served as inspiration for Herzog, but the famously gonzo director is too well-behaved for his own good here. There is no shortage of sweeping vistas and desert grandeur in his treatment, but it results in a surplus of dullness. Bell’s life, under his touch, becomes a life less extraordinary.

    For some odd reason, the film begins in 1914 as the British Arab Bureau is divvying up the Ottoman Empire. The majority of the officers are resolute in their resentment of Bell, whom one officer describes as a “globe-trotting, rump-waggling, conceited man-woman.” T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) and consul Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) disagree – no one knows the Bedouins and their ways better than Bell – but they are firmly in the minority. More on those two later.

    The film flashes back 12 years earlier as Bell (Nicole Kidman), restless with tolerating dithering suitors and brimming with intelligence and curiosity, pleads with her parents to release her from her gilded cage. Her father obliges, sending her to the British Embassy in Tehran, where she encounters British diplomat Henry Cadogan (James Franco), who seduces her with his knowledge of Omar Khayyam, the Farsi language, his psychic card skills, and his loneliness. Herzog displays major errors in judgement in this section, though some are more forgivable than others. For one thing, he casts Holly Earl as Florence Lascelles, Bell’s cousin who is obviously enamoured with Cadogan. There’s nothing with Earl other than she’s about a foot shorter than the towering Kidman. Herzog delights in this discrepancy as he composes frames that feature Earl’s face next to Kidman’s heaving bosom.

    One can chalk that up to some amusement on Herzog’s part, but there’s no excuse for either the Mills and Boon dialogue or Franco’s casting. The dialogue is excruciatingly bad, and not even bad enough to be laughable. As for Franco, what is he channeling here? A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s Puck in the midst of a Ritalin overdose? He is terribly worthy of Kidman, who can only soldier own and hope that the torture is finite. Cadogan, as proferred by Herzog, is meant to be Bell’s greatest love but there is no evidence of that onscreen. There’s a scene set in the Tower of Silence where Bell and Cadogan nearly kiss before they decide that a squawking vulture isn’t exactly an aural aphrodisiac, so they run out into the desert where they smooch as Herzog’s camera cranes upward √† la Gone With the Wind in time to the swells of Klaus Badelt’s score. It’s meant to be romantic, except it is most decidedly not.

    The best remedy Herzog might have administered would be to have Pattinson play all three male leads. Lewis is a vast improvement over Franco as the married but besotted Doughty-Wylie, but he too fails to generate any viable ardour. Pattinson, on the other hand, has a playful chemistry with Kidman and the brief scenes between Lawrence and Bell spark precisely because the attraction is intellectual rather than romantic. Pattinson also has the advantage of appearing in the film’s most successful section when Bell is finally out in the desert and interacting with the people she would come to admire and regard with fondness and affection.

    This is not to say that Herzog makes us understand what drove Bell or what is was about her that earned the respect and protectiveness of the various tribes, but at least Kidman isn’t saddled with limp dialogue and stillborn romantic pairings. Kidman is characteristically committed and, really, no other actress conveys the combination of determination, intelligence, and romanticism as easily as she does. She is perfect as Bell, but there isn’t much for her to work with.

    Technically, the film is unremarkable. Though filmed on location in Morocco and Jordan, there is something about the widescreen cinematography by Peter Zeitlinger that renders the scenery artificial, as if it were all shot on a soundstage. In fact, that extends to the entire film, which often comes off like an approximation of an actual film. There are times when it seems like Herzog would do as Joe Wright did in his forthrightly theatrical and superficial telling of Anna Karenina, that is how close Queen of the Desert comes to feeling staged. Certainly following Wright’s tactic would have made for a far more interesting film. If only Herzog had been more inventive, more daring, more reckless, more touched by madness – in short, more like himself.

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