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Werner Herzog‘s first narrative feature in six years, Queen of the Desert, has no scarcity of the quixotic German auteur’s key themes. Tracing the life of British explorer Gertrude Bell, whose unique understanding of Bedouin cultures helped reshape the Arab world in the early 1900s, this is the story of a woman penetrating the boundaries of nature as a refuge from the constricting conventions of society, the rigidity of colonialism and the cruelties of the human heart. Like so many Herzogian protagonists, she loses herself in a landscape of solitude that mirrors her state of mind. So why are all those tired camels onscreen not the only ones groaning?
Mainly it’s because despite the director’s frequently stated mission to liberate the poetry in his material by excavating what he has described as “ecstatic truth,” this is a literal, rather flat epic that keeps telling us in voiceovers of its spiritual dimension, without actually generating much evidence of it. The brief but significant appearances of Robert Pattinson as T.E. Lawrence aside, the film seems less likely to draw comparison to David Lean‘s classic foray into the desert sands than it is to a dated breed of 1980s romantic bio-drama, begging to be redubbed Out of Arabia.
Trekking across dunes, salt-crusted planes and rocky terrain for much of the duration, Nicole Kidman shows no sign of ever having spent an hour in the sun or gone a day without a good moisturizer. But she carries the film more than competently, even if she never quite sheds her movie-star baggage.
From the start, however, Herzog bangs us over the head with evidence that Gertrude is a Modern Woman, introducing her on the family estate in England spouting such anachronistic dialogue as “I can’t take it any longer. I feel so domesticated.” Apparently, time away at Oxford was her undoing as a creature of polite society. But despite Bell’s many hats — adventurer, historian, diarist, photographer, archeologist and political liaison among them — the film banalizes her story into a life of chronic wanderlust shaped less by insatiable cross-cultural fascination than by twin heartbreaks that provide melodramatic bookends. And the crippling blunder from which it never fully recovers is the miscasting of a very wooden James Franco as Henry Cadogan, the Tehran embassy diplomat who becomes her first tragic romance in the film’s most ineffectual stretch.
Herzog’s script opens with a 1914 Cairo confab led by a droll Winston Churchill (Chris Fulford), during which the Brits discuss how the carve-up of the collapsed Ottoman Empire should proceed after the onset of World War I. Already there are belabored nods to the mess of religious and ethnic conflicts that continue to define the region a century later. Lawrence weighs in with his opinion that nobody is better equipped to unravel the Arab people’s tangle of tribal affiliations and rivalries than Gertrude Bell.
The film then skips back 12 years to her flight from the Victorian motherland as she’s shipped off into the care of her eccentric uncle in Tehran (Mark Lewis Jones). While her daffy cousin (Holly Earl) has the flutters for embassy secretary Cadogan, that soft-spoken seducer only has eyes for Gertrude. Soon he’s teaching her Farsi in order to read the poets, showing her the marvels of the surrounding desert, and proposing marriage. But Gertrude’s family objects, and while she’s back home pleading her case, Cadogan dies under mysterious circumstances.
Three years later Gertrude is back in the region, a self-described widow. “For the first time in my life, I know who I am,” she says. “My heart belongs to no one now but the desert.” She acquires a trusted servant guide (Jay Abdo) and embarks on a restless crusade to explore the arid wilderness and study its people, shrugging off staunch opposition to her plans from the fusty British military establishment.
The film then becomes an episodic series of expeditions, during which conflicts are no sooner suggested than Gertrude is charming her way out of sticky situations with Turkish military, nomadic warriors and cultured sheiks. “The deeper we immerse ourselves into the desert, the more everything seems like a dream,” she says, in one of countless variations on the same theme. But the action is less dream-like than prosaic, despite ample helpings of spectacular scenery accompanied by Klaus Badelt‘s swelling symphonic score.
Among the more entertaining interludes is her time spent at an archeological dig with Lawrence. And while Pattinson in Arab headgear takes some getting used to (and drew laughs at the Berlin press screening), the easy camaraderie in his scenes with Kidman is appealing. A more dramatic shift occurs after Gertrude inadvertently casts her spell over Major Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis), the unhappily married British Consul General in Damascus. But while he wears down her resistance and she pines for him while she’s alone in the desert, fate intervenes again as the war escalates.
All this is told in plodding old-school fashion, often with regrettable dialogue. And despite Kidman’s commitment as Gertrude plunges into dangerous territory, braving hostile communities and ghost villages decimated by tribal wars, the character never acquires much complexity beyond her self-possessed gumption. What drives her is never really illuminated. She expounds in diary entries on her love of “the roadless desert,” and in some ways that’s what the film appears to be traveling, without satisfyingly outlining the big picture.
There are references in the closing scenes to the role of Bell and Lawrence in helping to forge the borders of modern-day Iraq and Jordan, but Herzog has never been strong on sociopolitical context and this film is no exception. While cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger‘s widescreen visuals have a bland handsomeness (location shooting was done in Morocco and Jordan), Queen of the Desert is a pedestrian retelling of an extraordinary life, more often starchy than stirring.
Production companies: Benaroya Pictures, Elevated Films, in association with 120dB Films, Sierra/Affinity, Palmyra Films
Cast: Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Damian Lewis, Robert Pattinson, Jay Abdo, Jenny Agutter, David Calder, Chris Fulford, Nick Waring, Holly Earl, Sophie Linfield, Mark Lewis Jones
Director-screenwriter: Werner Herzog
Producers: Nick Raslan, Michael Benaroya, Cassian Elwes
Executive producers: Jonathan Debin, Cathy Gesualdo, James Lejsek, Ben Sachs, D. Todd Shepherd, Shelley Madison
Director of photography: Peter Zeitlinger
Production designer: Ulrich Bergfelder
Costume designer: Michele Clapton
Music: Klaus Badelt
Editor: Joe Bini
Casting: Beth Charkham, Shannon Makhanian
No rating, 127 minutes.
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