By: Oberst von Berauscht –
Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman) was a recent graduate with Honors from Oxford when she embarked on her first adventure, to Tehran, Persia in 1892. This was the beginning of a long love affair with the Middle East that would see Bell explore and map the region, learning the cultures and languages of the various tribes and peoples along the way. Bell would take part in crucial diplomatic decisions, perform espionage, take part in archaeological research, and do just about everything else women weren’t expected to do in the late Victorian era. Along the way, she rubbed elbows with such important figures as King Faisal of Iraq, King Abdullah of Jordan, Winston Churchill, and Lawrence of Arabia.
Director Werner Herzog can’t make a film without at least some things of interest, and Queen of the Desert has enough moments to please fans of his work. He and his long-time cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger film the desert beautifully, even approaching David Lean-levels of poetry in the landscapes. One wishes the film spent more time lingering in the desert locations, though Fata Morgana (1971) exists, so if you want to see a film that is literally nothing but Herzog shooting the desert, you can make that happen…
For her part, Nicole Kidman delivers a strong performance, demonstrating Bell’s personal arc from a young university student anxious to see the world, to a woman of purpose. Bell finds ways to use her knowledge practically, which is important because she has to sooth the savage beast inside her that longs for adventure. The kind of work she ventures for is particularly dangerous for a woman, and she employs her intelligence, skills with diplomacy, and cultural understanding to not just survive, but thrive in a man’s world.
Werner Herzog’s directoral style is that of the rogue; he takes chances, and makes big, daring choices in how he reveals his characters. Herzog flaunts his defiance of conventional wisdom about storytelling. Most importantly though, he endlessly explores and empathizes with those who are unique. Herzog also is uncanny at finding and bringing out the uniqueness of seemingly ordinary lives.
So why did he choose to make such a conventional biopic about Gertrude Bell, one of the most unusual and secretly influential people of the first half of the 20th century? The film doesn’t really take many chances in exploring Bell’s life, with the only real daring statement being about how her traumatic youthful experiences in romance pushed her into her work (hardly a daring or particularly revealing statement to make).
Gertrude Bell’s life had so many adventures that a biopic couldn’t help but miss some details to her story. The problem in Queen of the Desert is that it chooses to focus on the aspect of Bell that defines her legacy the least; her love life. Bell never married, and while she did engage in some romances and affairs, there isn’t particularly all that much written about them. Now, I can understand Herzog’s interest in focusing on something lesser known about a historical figure, but that applies more for a figure who is more well known. Gertrude Bell is an obscure enough figure in history that her achievements deserve to be highlighted. At just over 2 hours of run-time, just under half the time is put into Bell’s work.
If the Romantic subplots of Queen of the Desert were told well everything would be forgivable. As it stands, the first half of the film, featuring James Franco as Bell’s first, best romance, is a real snooze. Franco is trying his best to be the dreamy exotic man who “understands” Bell’s eccentricities. He never develops a character of his own, only serving as the object of a clichéd forbidden romance that barely has any impact on the rest of the movie.
Queen of the Desert is one of director Werner Herzog’s weakest films, because it takes a story about a unique and eccentric person and fails to give it his typical unconventional touch. However, History fans will appreciate having at least part of Gertrude Bell story put to film for the first time, and Nicole Kidman is at her very best in the part.
Queen of the Desert Drinking Game
Take a Drink: when the generic score swells dramatically during a romantic scene
Take a Drink: for Herzog’s patented shots of animals
Do a Shot: for Nicole Kidman bewbs
Do a Shot: for good old fashioned Colonial British-centrism