Queen of the Desert

Studio: IFC Films
Directed by Werner Herzog

Apr 07, 2017 Web Exclusive
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Any time a famed director like Werner Herzog makes a new movie, it is bound to come with preconceived expectations. With a diverse resume dating back several decades in both narrative (Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo) and documentary (Grizzly Man, Into the Abyss) and even two movies about the same subject (Rescue Dawn and Little Dieter Needs to Fly), he’s raised the bar. His pulpy genre fare, even if it’s a mixed bag, has an allure to it. This is what makes Queen of the Desert such a disappointment. It lacks even the remotest hook beyond curiosity about the primary subject, and even that fades.

Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman) is a fascinating historical figure. She was a writer and adventurer who explored the deserts of Persia in the early 1900s. She came from affluent means and longed for escape – which is shown in a drab opening segment – and eventually was sent to the Middle East. Here, Gertrude falls in love with Henry Cadogan (James Franco), who was charged with supervising her. Their union is not approved, and they are broken up as she returns to Britain. As such, the film delays her real journey to the desert, prolonging what could have acted as prologue to nearly half the film’s runtime. While one solution would be to extend what follows, another would be to cut the first hour in half and expand on her travels and encounters in unknown territory. As depicted, Bell’s romantic life was not particularly interesting even if Cadogan – and his mysterious death – are presented as a catalyst for her becoming a solitary figure.

Queen of the Desert stumbles because of similar issues that often arise in biopics. It tries to do too much, and as a result accomplishes little. Her conflicts with the British government and her connection with T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) are glanced upon and so are her forays into the unknown. The most interesting aspects of her story are the times she opens up and understands the foreign people she is meeting and engaging with. The problem is that while it’s clear she has developed rapport, they feel distant within the story, offering very little insight to the audience.

Queen of the Desert is well enough performed. Kidman is strong, and it’s nice to see an older actress be the love interest of younger men for a change. Damian Lewis channels Roger Livesey (Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) in a relatively small role as another potential love interest, though its handled with such formality and rigidness, it feels insufficient. Bell seems like a historical figure who desperately wanted to understand people from different backgrounds – specifically in Persia – and yet the movie ends providing little understanding in its own right. It’s the type of story Herzog would have been better suited to pursue as a documentary had he been alive at the time.

Author rating: 3.5/10

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Average reader rating: 3/10



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