'Queen of the Desert' Review: Slipping in the Sand
With a body of work stretching over fifty years, spanning countless filmic styles and genres, it’s no wonder that a man such as Herzog would build up so much clout for his craft. Revered and respected by people on every end of the movie-going spectrum, the addition of his name to any project cues an audience into a one-of-a-kind experience. To some degree, one begins to insulate themselves with this storied legacy. When the likes of Roger Ebert comment that such a creator "has never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons, or uninteresting” and that “even his failures are spectacular,” it seems like all the outs are covered for you. But all titans, no matter how magnificent, must fall.
In a very fitting way, for myself, 2015’s Queen of the Desert is Herzog’s most recent non-documentary work since our last outing with him in 2009 with My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? Again, he adapts a real-world story – this time the life and work of Gertrude Bell (played here by Nicole Kidman) – to the big screen. Moving to Persia from her sheltered upbringing in Britain, Bell began to travel throughout the Middle East, engrossing herself in the culture and quickly becoming an important political figure between the various regimes and the Crown. Driven on by the loss of several lovers and confidants, she made a name for herself as "one of the few representatives of His Majesty's Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection."
Being completely honest, I don’t know that I can do the story justice in a single paragraph. Queen of the Desert’s greatest strength is the way in which it highlights what a profoundly remarkable and extraordinary woman Gertrude Bell was, and how her work even has ramifications to this day. She played courier and kingmaker to many of the Middle Eastern powers that would shape the rest of the 20th and early 21st century in incredible feats of tact and diplomacy.
It's a shame, then, that this comes at the cost of a good movie. Because Queen of the Desert is drier than the Sahara and with less focus than the Iraq War.
Herzog clearly reveres this woman and wants us to know her story, but he tells it in a plodding, by-the-numbers biopic. He plays it safe but also makes strange choices to tie this amazingly strong woman down to two hapless lovers, the dashing Henry Cadogan (James Franco) and the regimented-yet-romantic British officer, Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis). Sure, these relationships informed the woman she would become to some degree, but Herzog plays them out as her very life hinges on their every emotion, like nothing could have been accomplished without her falling helplessly in school-girl love, only for the poor saps to die tragic deaths that, to some degree or another, appear to be at their hands. Kidman does her best to balance both worlds, but when the only scene that feels even slightly Herzogian is her dropping a champagne glass and stunning an entire dinner party into silence after receiving word of Charles’ death, you get the sense of just how stupidly melodramatic the whole outing is about her love life. It’s a feminist critic’s nightmare – I’ll tell you that much.
The rest of the events that aren’t predicated on these stock romance stories clearly have an interesting source material, but Herzog seems either unable or unwilling to make them so. Every interaction with a Shah or other prominent political figure is dry and drags on far too long. There’s wit in the dialogue, but it’s buried under uninspired camera work and a lagging plot. Most of the acting is merely passable: Kidman is believable, but not given enough to do; there are some fun side-characters like her companion, Fattuh (Jay Abdo), who are ultimately horribly underused; Lewis is excellent and charming, but remains generally unremarkable; and even James Franco, who is apparently trying his hardest, is just not that interesting, outside of his markedly slipping English accent.
However, the one delight of the film, a real diamond in the rough, is Robert Pattinson as Colonel T.E. Lawrence, better known to the average viewer as Lawrence of Arabia. Pattinson simply eats this role up, being equal parts delightfully strange and truly inspired. You get the sense of how much he wanted to inhabit the truth of this man, and it’s clear that he has genuine acting chops just so long as he wants to have anything to do with the film in question. Every scene he partakes in is pure, unabated joy, so it’s a real shame that there’s only a tiny handful of them.
I’m not sure if it’s a good or a bad thing that Ebert didn’t live long enough to see this flick because I think it would so utterly undermine the vision he had of this legendary filmmaker. Queen of the Desert is safe, standard, and poorly led. There doesn’t appear to be a single drop of creativity or risk with this movie, and it does a disservice to the history of the woman it places as its hero by weighing her down with men that are nowhere near her caliber. The only justice it serves Bell is the fact that it made me want to find out just what happened to make her story so necessary for a man like Herzog to tell that he would compromise his standards to such an absurd level. Not the best follow-up to my indoctrination though.