Here is the kind of film that you can hardly believe is the work of Werner Herzog, who has written and directed it. It is grown-up, respectable and historical, perfectly competently made, lots of accents and period dressing-up … and just the tiniest bit dull.
Queen of the Desert is an expansive and solemn biopic of Gertrude Bell, played by Nicole Kidman as a cousin to the doughty Englishwoman-abroad role she had in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia.
Bell was the British traveller, scholar and orientalist of the early 20th century who, like TE Lawrence, took a patrician interest in the Arab peoples who were yearning to throw off the yoke of the Ottoman Empire.
She made a remarkable contribution to creating the kingdoms and nation states of what is now known as the Middle East. The shaikhs were perhaps intended to be the equivalent of British India’s complaisant maharajahs. That was before oil was discovered.
Bell is thought of as a female Lawrence of Arabia, and there can be doubt that Herzog had David Lean’s great picture somewhere in his mind as he made this. The orchestral score even appears to quote from Maurice Jarre’s undulating Lawrence theme.
But where is the eroticism, the ambiguity and the danger of Lawrence’s Peter O’Toole? I would have thought that Herzog would plunge, chaotically and subversively, into the erotic charge of desert adventure. But no. Bell commands opaque respect from the Bedouins and incites a doomed, suppressed passion in British men: an unfortunate repeat pattern of disaster which the movie leaves tactfully unexamined.
Headstrong, beautiful Bell is at first described in highly abusive and ungallant terms by the British army types who resent her interference in diplomatic affairs. But Herzog soon shows us that her beauty is unconventional only in that she is tall.
Kidman makes some of the other characters look as small as Hobbits. Bored to tears on the family estate, Gertrude persuades her papa to send her out to foreign climes and here her beauty and brilliance capture the heart of raffish junior British diplomat Henry Cadogan, played by James Franco. This actor certainly puts the “cad” in Cadogan, but his very odd English accent and cheesy ingratiating grin makes him look and sound like some lost member of the Monkees. Bell’s father does not approve of this man and the liaison does not end well.
Perhaps in flight from her internal emotional turmoil, Bell cultivates her passionate interest in the Bedouin tribesmen and displaces her need for romantic love outwards — into the desert. There she is to encounter Lawrence himself, played boyishly by Robert Pattinson. He looks a little self-conscious in the headdress — though perhaps no more self-conscious than Lawrence himself looked in it. His appearance got a few laughs from the Berlin film festival audience when it premiered there, but Pattinson carried off this (minor) role well enough.
She also meets another Englishman, Charles Doughty-Wylie, played by Damian Lewis, who at first appears to be just another blithering British officer who is infuriated by Bell’s impetuous expeditions into difficult areas, ostensibly because she is upsetting the apple-cart, but really because they realise that this civilian has imagination and flair, which is showing them up. But soon Wylie is entranced by Bell’s beauty and his marriage is under strain.
And so the movie plods on. Bell journeys out into that magnificent landscape, comes back, goes out, comes back. Her courage commands the respect of the tribesmen for whom she becomes the uncrowned “queen of the desert”. But Bell does not seem to grow up or become different in any appreciable way in the course of this longish film.
Everything is pretty buttoned-up. As for Kidman herself, she does a perfectly reasonable job with this difficult role and she is well cast. But she never cuts loose, never unleashes the kind of rage, or love, or despair that you sense is simmering inside.