There’s an outstanding movie to be made about Gertrude Bell, the intensely independent British noblewoman who, in the first decades of the 20th century, traveled throughout the Arab world and contributed to the formation of the modern Middle East.
“Queen of the Desert,” unfortunately, is a so-so account of her life and work. And it’s an unhappy surprise that this quite conventional movie was made by Werner Herzog, renowned for his depictions of the visionary and idiosyncratic.
The film does not stint on detailing Bell’s accomplishments and showing her intelligence and determination, nicely conveyed by Nicole Kidman. But it also places unexpected emphasis on her relationships with several men. That’s odd, because part of what’s intriguing about Bell is how she bulled her way, in opposition to the wishes of the British military, across desert territories controlled by tribal leaders definitely not used to dealing with strong-willed women.
Until now, Herzog’s work has focused on male megalomaniacs and misfits — think of “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and the other films he made with the mercurial Klaus Kinski. It’s nice that Herzog has seen the light, and Kidman is more than capable of playing a woman who stands on her own two feet. But “Queen of the Desert” is tasteful to the point that it borders on anemic, though it comes from a filmmaker who usually errs on the side of grandiosity.
The movie opens with Bell newly graduated from Oxford and eager to see what life outside of England might have in store for her. Her father sends her to the British embassy at Tehran, where she meets and falls for an English diplomat, Henry Cadogan (James Franco). Her father opposes the match, and things end unhappily.
Bell eventually crosses paths — in a decidedly nonromantic way — with none other than T.E. Lawrence, awkwardly played by Robert Pattinson. (By the way, you can’t read much about Bell before you come across a reference to her as the “female Lawrence of Arabia.”) There’s some amusement in watching Bell and Lawrence interact, and they will be reunited later as advisers to Winston Churchill.
In her travels through the desert, Bell encounters warlords and wannabe potentates, and uses her brains, a bit of charm and some forged documents to go places that are way off-limits to the British establishment. Her information will prove useful to diplomats, the military and map-makers.
She will also fall in love again, with a married British officer, Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis, in the strongest performance after Kidman’s). She writes him high-flown letters that are one of the film’s few noticeable Herzogian touches — he’s given to fanciful rhetoric.
Another Herzog feature is the film’s gorgeous desert photography. It was filmed in Morocco and Jordan, and aficionados of the director will see reflections of the haunted, internal landscapes in many of his other works.
It’s a great story, but the movie has a flatness that can’t be denied. Who’d have expected a Herzog film to invoke thoughts of “Masterpiece Theatre” and Merchant Ivory productions at their most stiff and formal? I surely did not.
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Queen of the Desert
☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: Werner Herzog
Cast: Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Robert Pattinson, Damien Lewis
Rated: PG-13 (brief nudity, thematic elements)
Running time: 128 min.