Film Review: Queen of the Desert

Werner Herzog sends Nicole Kidman and countless camels trekking through the sands in a clunky, repetitive but sporadically effective account of pioneering traveler Gertrude Bell.
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An extraordinary individual, by any measure, British author, archaeologist, scholar and explorer Gertrude Bell, born of extreme wealth and privilege in post-Industrial northern England, found her purpose upon losing herself in the Arabian desert. She must certainly have been a complicated woman. As portrayed by Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman, in writer-director Werner Herzog’s budget-epic depiction of Bell’s travels, starting in 1892, across Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria and Arabia, she was independent enough to avoid marrying any of the boring bachelors of County Durham, yet not so liberated as to completely forgo her industrialist father’s approval or ever fully relinquish her upper-class privilege.

She did explore, study, write about and influence Arab and Middle Eastern culture like no Englishwoman before her or since. In her efforts to understand and commune with Bedouins and the Druze, among other cultures affected by the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Bell ventured to desert dominions where no Europeans had dared to tread. Filmmaker Herzog, a cinematic champion of iconoclastic adventurers, deftly frames Bell’s journey as that of a true explorer, an Oxford-educated lover of letters and culture, who was committed to approaching unfamiliar lands as a humble visitor, not as aconqueror.

Kidman might not project the physical ruggedness of the real-life Bell, a noted hiker and mountain climber, but she is masterful at navigating a character’s story, and easily conveys Bell’s bright, open nature. She embodies an innovator’s curiosity, the endearing quality of a person fascinated by life and her rapidly changing world, who doesn’t regard Western (i.e., British) custom as the purest standard or expression of humanity. Often butting heads with colonial officials, succinctly represented by Sir Mark Sykes (Nick Waring), the bull-headed British foreign officer who seeks to thwart her at every pass, Bell treks boldlytime and again into hostile territories and closely guarded sheikdoms, provoking confrontations with feuding tribal lords and armed soldiers.

Considering the extreme dangers this indomitable woman faced, Herzog’s script frankly casts Bell as a bit of a superhero. Except for a minor bullet “graze” sustained in the midst of a desert raid, she emerges relatively unscathed, at least bodily, from more perils than Pauline. However safely she made her voyages there and back again, the film overplays the bulletproof courage that earned Bell her reputation as “the lady of the desert.” The script, and Kidman’s astute performance, do account for her common sense, and skillful use of bluster and horse-trading (literally) to access notoriously insular and not exactly progressive communities. In summit after summit, she’s swift enough to arrive bearing gifts, and usually some respectful knowledge of her host’s language, along with vital intel about his rivals.

Herzog’s and the film’s surest success is in portraying how Bell’s accumulated knowledge and expertise, her well-cultivated connections and well-known stubbornness, ultimately served a valuable purpose in diplomacy and in keeping the Empire apprised of the constantly shifting sands that were the kingdoms of the desert. Her travels through what she calls “the mysterious labyrinth” credibly forge her into a sage politician, consulted by sheikhs and prime ministers alike. Working with frequent collaborators cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger and composer Klaus Badelt, Herzog chronicles Bell’s poetic trip through the labyrinth with handsomely composed shots of dromedaries loping over dunes, scored to soaring strings (and some additional transporting themes contributed by composer Mark Yaeger).

The desert looks like a desert, beautiful and barren, harsh and enchanting, but the oases, the camps, the camels and fireside chats all start to look the same, with some footage appearing to be reused or repurposed. Compromised by abrupt cuts and glaring post-production choices—like one small group of cavalrymen whose approach on horseback is announced with the sound effect of what might be thousands of thundering hooves—the action is choppily edited and covered, as plot points are delivered in blunt, economical strokes that keep the pace churning, but leave no air for the story’s more powerful emotions to breathe.

Herzog hurries any romance and tears along to fit in more of the arcane but relevant tribal and political details that serve his broader-canvas view of what led European powers, spearheaded by Britain, to reorder the Middle East and former Ottoman territories in ways that sowed conflict for the next several generations. Kidman, perhaps trying to will this historical geopolitical drama towards being a solid, old-fashioned ’40s-style women’s picture, carves out some time for her character to feel things.

Unfortunately, neither she, Herzog, nor the gorgeous Persian (actually Moroccan) vistas elicit much emotion from co-star James Franco, underwhelming as Henry Cadogan, the undersecretary to the United Kingdom’s ambassador in Persia and the man who supposedly first opens Gertrude’s heart to love and to understanding the “poetry of life” to be found in the desert. Franco fits the period, but his English accent is dead on arrival; so’s the romance. Henry and Gertrude share a sweetly chaste late-night encounter over a card trick, but their all-time love doesn’t spark or smolder as it should.

With co-star Damian Lewis, on the other hand, the romance does sizzle a bit, as his army major Charles “Richard” Doughty-Wylie openly pines for Bell, even in front of his wife. He’s positively magnetized by Bell’s intellect and courage. The film could have stood to spend more time on Bell’s encounters with Lewis’ smitten, struggling Richard, and with Robert Pattinson’s vibrant, rather O’Toole-ish T.E. Lawrence, who charms Gertrude around a campfire, and later joins her alongside a gruff, cigar-chomping Winston Churchill (Christopher Fulford) at a closed-door conference to carve out new borders in the Arab world. They’re larger-than-life figures plotting monumental destinies on a small foldable map. Queen of the Desert stumbles and threatens to fall apart along the way, but what lingers is the portrait of an amazing woman whose trailblazing explorations both uplifted generations of archaeologists, historians and independent women, and truly changed history.

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