Queen of the Desert

I'd walk a mile for a camel: Assaad Bouab and Nicole Kidman

Rated PG-13, biopic, in English, Arabic, and Turkish with subtitles, The Screen, 1.5 chiles

Not all great auteurs make great films every time they sit in the director’s chair — not even Werner Herzog. Few living directors have a body of work as diverse and affecting as his, with such mass appeal, and yet, still profound in ways you would think only seasoned cinemagoers and cineastes could appreciate. As a documentarian, he finds the unconsidered angles on a topic, and gets under your skin. The same can be said for his narrative features. Films such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo are classics of cinema, and his more recent documentary features — Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World, Into the Abyss, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams — are all highly regarded among fans and critics. But now we have his Ishtar, the bizarre Queen of the Desert, a biopic on English author, spy, and political administrator Gertrude Bell. I love Werner Herzog. It pains me to write this review.

The real Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), played on screen by Nicole Kidman, was a powerful woman whose influence helped shape British imperial policy in the Middle East after World War I, helping to establish the modern state of Iraq. She was an adventurer, an archeologist, a mountaineer, a linguist, and a cartographer — nothing short of a polymath. She was also the confidant of Arab princes and kings. She had some brief and passionate affairs, but in this Hollywood treatment everyone falls in love with her, is impressed by her guile, and bends to her wants — the soft glow that Herzog bathes her in proving stronger than a man’s will. One so hopes that Herzog, who wrote the screenplay, is skewering well-worn tropes of the modern, independent woman breaking Victorian conventions and stepping outside of societal roles. “No one summons me,” she has the audacity to tell a sheik and, yet, he did summon her — and she came. Queen of the Desert takes itself too seriously, and there’s no real trace of irony in the telling, no matter how badly we wish there were. “My heart belongs to no one but the desert,” Bell says on one of her long treks by camel through the blistering sands. Such scenes are beautifully filmed, and there is one great Herzogian moment in the film that he shot during an actual sandstorm.

Bell is a role Kidman was born to play, but she’s also been typecast as the British imperialist savior of the brown races once again. We saw this in Baz Luhrmann’s corn fest Australia when it was the Aborigines. In Queen of the Desert, it’s the Bedouin tribes. As a young T.E. Lawrence, Robert Pattinson looks ridiculous in a kaftan and keffiyeh, like he’s on his way to a fancy-dress ball. His scenes are mercifully brief, but the same cannot be said for the scenes with the miscast James Franco as Henry Cadogan, Viscount Chelsea, an early love interest of Bell’s, a role originally intended for Jude Law. Most of Bell’s suitors seem to be about half her age, unlike their real-life counterparts. An exception to the casting of young men as her lovers is Damian Lewis as British officer Charles Doughty-Wylie, a would-be inamorato who was later killed in the Battle of Gallipoli. Lewis is a fine actor and puts in a credible performance.

Kidman does, too, although too much of her story is told in voice-over narration. There’s an art to voice-overs that can be summed up as “keep it brief,” and Kidman is a good enough actor to convey emotion convincingly without unnecessary explanations for her internal conflicts. She is in just about every scene, making Queen of the Desert feel like a vanity project. She reportedly told the press after the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival premiere that she begged Herzog to include a scene of her bathing in the desert. He did. But what man could refuse her request, especially in that soft cinematic glow?

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