Werner Herzog is a fascinating artist. A mad genius who for over fifty years of filmmaking has used the camera to uncover new layers of human experience, of the natural world, and to probe deep into the human psyche. Great critic Roger Ebert said of Herzog, “he has never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons or uninteresting. Even his failures are spectacular.” Gertrude Bell was an equally fascinating character – a brilliant young woman who, bored with the restrictions of turn-of-the-century British society, saw a world of opportunities in the Middle East. She became a traveller, archaeologist, linguist, and explorer, one of the few people who understood the Bedouin tribes and was able to move as an equal among the sheikhs, despite being British and a woman. After the First World War she became a powerful official in the British Administration and helped formed the borders of the new kingdoms of the Middle East. Somehow Herzog and Bell combine to make the pedestrian, almost dull, film Queen of the Desert.
Nicole Kidman takes the role of Gertrude in Queen of the Desert, which jumps through her life from 1892 to just before her death in 1926. It follows her rejection of the British ‘marriage market’, her time in Tehran with her ambassador uncle, her extensive travels through the Middle East and immersion in tribal politics, and her role as Secretary of the Orient. Bell was known as a woman of energy, passion and fierce intelligence that drew esteem and affection from those around her. Kidman fails to project the aura that Bell must have had, and not just because it’s pretty difficult to act with a face that’s about as expressive as a piece of plasterboard. There’s little in her eyes or in her movements that suggest people would be drawn to her – men like those played by James Franco and Damian Lewis. For some unknown reason Herzog decides to frame much of Bell’s fascinating life through the framework of two love affairs, rather than focus more on how her time in the desert shaped not only her, but eventually the entire world around her.
Franco, frankly, seems entirely out of place as British civil servant Henry Cadogan, with an English accent straight out of Austin Powers. Lewis meanwhile, as consul Charles Doughty-Wylie, is such an equally bland interest that one of the few surprises of the film comes with Gertrude losing sleep over him – what exactly is so interesting about him? All three actors aren’t helped by a strangely leaden screenplay from Herzog himself. For such a melodically spoken man, he’s really failed to translate that to the screen this time, with a script that relies on rubbish “Dear Diary” voiceovers and some dreadful dialogue.
Herzog’s lyricality is shown more in his camera work. Bell had a love of poetry, translating the Persian writer Hafez into English and falling in love with the poetry of the Bedouin lifestyle, and you can feel this reflected in Herzog’s filming style. The cinematography is full of classic long sweeps and zoom outs, with a slow pace that’s happy to take its time and luxuriate in its surroundings – the rhythms of the desert. This sense is also reflected in the lack of narrative tension, and at times the film can really feel like a trek through the desert – long stretches of blandness, interspersed with oases of interest. The small role of Robert Pattinson as T.E. Lawrence, who Bell knew and worked with, is one of these few refreshing points.
If there was ever the definition of Sunday afternoon, nothing else to do, sit down with your mum, stick on a pot of tea, Downton Abbey crowd film, then it’s Queen of the Desert. It’s not poorly made, but it’s a surprisingly impotent, routine overview from a director who can usually guarantee wild, compelling portraits of outsiders and pioneers.
Queen of the Desert is in cinemas from 2nd June through Transmission Films.