Herzog opens Queen of the Desert with an impressive shot. Sand drifts across the dunes like a growing mist, rolling up each peak before flowing down the other side. Into this remote land comes a group of travellers led by Gertrude Bell; writer, traveller, archaeologist and spy to name just a few of the labels attached to her. It’s classic Herzog; imposing nature and the madness of those driven to venture through it. Yet it’s not typical of the film as a whole. This most unique of directors has made a largely conventional historical biopic, stilted and misfocussed until Bell finally emerges at the end.
For a woman who achieved much, attention is misplaced on her romantic failures. Bell, played by Nicole Kidman with earnest energy shifting to rocky determination, led a remarkable life. This is the woman who fled dull plenty in the shires for adventure out amongst the Bedouin tribes. Setting out with her own team, she spent years learning about them, proving a vital source of information for the British Government in World War I and the immediate aftermath.
For all these achievements, a significant chunk of the film is spent watching her romance first James Franco’s junior diplomat Henry Cadogan, and then Damian Lewis’ married soldier Doughty-Wylie. A lifeless feeling descends as Bell wheels through fancy balls and poetry reading sessions. It’s a far cry from the woman she really is, the woman who helped define the boundaries for countries still standing today.
To compound his problems, Herzog has mixed luck with the A-list cast. Kidman looks and sounds imposing, if a little forced at times. At least she can master the accent. Franco’s American lilted goggle eyed turn is a distraction, as is Robert Pattinson as an unlikely T.E. Lawrence. Lewis plays stiff upper lip well, but the only one to really stand out is a brief cameo from Mark Lewis Jones as Bell’s unsentimental and bluff uncle Frank Lascelles in the Tehran embassy.
Just as it seems Queen of the Desert is about to collapse under the heaving weight of bodices and society dinners, the real Bell starts to appear. Free of the expectations normally placed on women at the time, and ultimately free of marriage and children in an era when to dabble with either usually meant staying at home, Bell heads out into the wilderness in search of tribes liable to cause her great harm.
Suddenly, the restrictive dullness that comes with aristocratic life is shed like winter clothing at the onset of spring. Bell starts to soar free of her shackles as she faces down tribal leaders intent on adding her to their harem, and avoids getting executed on the spot or locked in an Ottoman jail. The earlier mundane awkwardness looks more deliberate, as if it is through Bell’s eyes that we’ve always been viewing both worlds. Trapped and unhappy in the life she’s meant to lead, she’s exhilaratingly free in the one she forges out of sheer determination.
Queen of the Desert is a confused film, lost on the wrong aspects of her life for too long and caught up in cringe worthy social interaction. But Gertrude Bell, that great explorer of the unknown and champion of the misunderstood is eventually given her moment in the sun. Herzog never gets to the heart of her, leaving behind an enigmatic mystery. Bell’s always been an enigma though, a woman who succeeded in a time and place deemed impossible. That she remains impressive and unknown seems almost fitting.
Director: Werner Herzog
Writer: Werner Herzog (screenplay)
Stars: James Franco, Nicole Kidman, Robert Pattinson
Country: USA, Morocco