Werner Herzogs’ Queen of the Desert inhabits a strange middle ground between being a sprawling period epic and a costume drama on Masterpiece Theater. Based on the life of Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman), a traveler, explorer, and scientist in a time when none of that was possible for a woman, Herzog’s film falls short of providing a compelling portrayal of its subject.
The film begins with Gertrude’s parents trying to marry off their Oxford-educated daughter. As is expected of the willful young woman, she tells her father that instead of marriage she intends to travel and explore the Middle East, much of which is uncharted and unknown even to the land’s British overlords. When she first arrives to the British consulate there is more party attending than actual exploring going on and during her time there she falls in love with Henry Cadogan (James Franco affecting a distracting posh accent). They plan to marry but Henry mysteriously dies while she is away, and the sudden blow renews her desire to start exploring the land.
With her entourage of loyal Arab guides in tow, Bell begins her journey. Along the way she meets up with T.E. Lawrence aka Lawrence of Arabia (a decent turn by Robert Pattinson) and it’s apparent the two are kindred spirits. In a time when women aren’t allowed to be intelligent or assertive, she unabashedly uses her skills to forge relationships with warring Bedouin tribes and identifies the major Arab figures that will consequently play a role in the formation of an independent Middle East. By learning their language and culture and respecting their philosophies, she becomes one of the British government’s most valuable political attachés in the region and earns her Bedouin title of “The Noble Lady” or “Queen of the Desert.” Later on, she and Winston Churchill will use her documentations and charts to carve out the borders of what is modern day Jordan, Saudia Arabia and Iraq. For better or worse that is.
If it was at all difficult for Bell to assert herself into a position of power and influence in a completely male dominated part of the world, Queen of the Desert shows us none of it. Just scenes of tight-assed men in uniform telling her she can’t, and her managing to acquire the resources to do it anyway. Kidman pulls off haughty confidence well, but these scenes one after another are devoid of any insight into the struggles or continued motivation of Bell. The film pushes us to believe that they, in part, are born out of loss, both of her fiancé and later her lover Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis). That because love doesn’t seem like an option for her, she puts her passion into discovering the people of the Middle East. I’d like to think there’s more to it than a lack of a husband she never dreamed of having anyway.
Even if her connections with and deepening affection for the people of this region serve as her continued motivation, the film fails to flesh out their importance. These communities of Bedouin are in the middle of intense conflict with each other and highly volatile. Yet Bell drifts into their camps with the ease of an overconfident thrill seeker with a death wish. Bell is fearless but the grand entrances gloss over the impact the communication between the two groups has on Bell, on the tribal leaders, and the overall narrative of the film.
There is something to be said about the visuals in this film which are stunning when they aren’t bordering on nature documentary. There is a classic feel to Herzog’s camera in these moments that gives Queen of the Desert an appropriate mood of romantic exoticism. At times Kidman’s Bell seems a little too comfortable in the desert for a ‘lady of leisure,’ surrounded by all men and occasionally being threatened by Bedouin’s suspicious of her intentions. But as a piece of escapism, the film works on some level as a portal to an exciting and momentous time in world history.
Despite the epic nature of Gertrude Bell’s life, Queen of the Desert is a slog that chugs along to its conclusion. The film doesn’t have anything interesting to say and as a result it feels like a dry recitation of facts from a historical biography brought to life with pretty backdrops and costumes. At best this film has inspired me to read a book about a fascinating person who deserves a stronger film.
Queen of the Desert opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Jill Malcolm
Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.