Queen of the Desert opens with a scene better suited to Victorian romance novel: The porcelain skin yet headstrong “English Rose” Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman) receiving a gentle scolding from her mother to, “smile… and not scare the young men with your intelligence” as she’s primped in preparation for a formal birthday (26th) ball. This moment is meant to convey to the viewer that Gertrude is not your typical girl of 1892. She’s educated, inquisitive, and restless. Not content with the limited conversation and lot of an unmarried lady of her day, Gertrude is but one of 4 women to attend Oxford. She not only completed her studies in Modern History, she does it with honors.
This choice to open this way is very telling and sets the directorial tone for the entire movie. Instead of a movie focused on Gertrude’s brashness and brilliance we instead are treated to a trip through her the relationship past guided by her frequent romantic-tinged musings. This choice makes for a painfully slow, distressingly simple movie completely lacking in depth or connection.
Queen of the Desert uses Bell’s journal entries as inconsistent narrator throughout the movie. The point is, to fill in the blanks with her enteral thoughts and motivations to round out the beautiful visuals but instead far too often paints Bell as driven by emotion to the exclusion of much else.
Gertrude Bell is the daughter of progressive-minded capitalist and business owner Sir Hugh Bell (David Calder). The movie illustrates the closeness of their relationship and his support for her adventurous spirit. He uses his influences and sends his daughter to visit her uncle in Tehran, Persia where he was stationed as a British Minister.
The movie narrates her visit through the lens of her introduction to and budding relationship with junior diplomat, Henry Cadogan (James Franco), Bell appears as the intelligent ingénue meeting her “match” and finding the romance missing from her life. She’s presented more as a husband-seeking visitor, albeit one willingly stepping beyond convention in her romantic pursuit, rather than a woman seeking knowledge and adventure. After that relationship, fails Herzog’s Bell appears as the long-suffering pseudo-widow moving through the world with little purpose other than to out-pace the memory of her lost love(s). As her sojourn continues, two more periods in her life are highlighted again, centered around the (English) men she encounters and comes to know. Herzog did a better job of showing T.E. Lawrence’s (Robert Pattinson) pasts and what led to him becoming known as “Lawrence of Arabia” than he did telling the story of Gertrude Bell.
There’s very little focused her actual travels or achievements history details as occurring during this time. Her eventual influence on the fate of the entire region is presented more as inadvertent byproduct of her wandering about the desert managing not to get herself kidnapped (often) or killed. Queen of the Desert presents Bell less as a woman intent on discovery and more as one questing between romantic dalliances.
The truth is, Bell was a published author, noted photographer and archeologist knowledgeable and passionate about history and world affairs. She was fluent in Arabic, Persian, French, and German; additionally, she spoke Italian and Turkish. Gertrude Bell was the only woman with political position and influence in the Middle East from World War I until her death. Her work and travels through the desert are directly responsible for saving the lives of British soldiers.
Werner Herzog’s screenplay and direction reduces Bell to a woman heart-bruised wandering through the desert in an attempt to take in the local flavor and see the sights with little purpose or direction. Neither is true. His focus on telling her story using the men in her life as guideposts rather than actively engaging with her life and work does both a disservice to Gertrude Bell as well as Nicole Kidman’s dignified (but shallow) onscreen portrayal.
This movie is beautifully shot and aptly demonstrates the vastness of the desert. But you’ll walk away from this movie not knowing Gertrude Bell any better than at the start. This cast is wasted on Queen of the Desert without exception; each and every one deserved better as does Gertrude Bell’s legacy.
Rating: 2.5 stars
Nicole Kidman and director Werner Herzog bring to life the extraordinary true story of a trailblazing woman who found freedom in the faraway world of the Middle East. Gertrude Bell (Kidman) chafes against the stifling rigidity of life in turn-of-the-century England, leaving it behind for a chance to travel to Tehran. So begins her lifelong adventure across the Arab world, a journey marked by danger, a passionate affair with a British officer (James Franco), and an encounter with the legendary T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson). Stunningly shot on location in Morocco and Jordan, Queen of the Desert reveals how an ahead-of-her-time woman shaped the course of history.
Cast: Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Damian Lewis, Robert Pattinson, Jay Abdo
Director: Werner Herzog
Writer: Werner Herzog