Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Werner Herzog
Stars: Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Robert Pattinson, Damien Lewis, Jenny Agutter, David Calder.
This queen of the desert is not a bus named Priscilla. Rather she is a modern thinking, fiercely independent, headstrong and intelligent British woman named Gertrude Bell who is apparently right up there with the famed T E Lawrence as an important figure in contemporary Arab history.
An explorer, writer, archaeologist and traveller, she had an enormous impact on the politics of the Middle East at the beginning of the 20th century, and was instrumental in shaping the modern Arab world after WWI. Bored with life at her stately but stuffy family manor in Britain, Gertrude (played here by Nicole Kidman) craved some excitement. Her father eventually agreed to help her land a diplomatic post in Tehran, and thus began her fascination with Arab culture, history and traditions. Gertrude worked at the Tehran embassy for a couple of years before she spent many more years travelling across the vast deserts of Syria and Jordan and meeting the Bedouin tribespeople and documenting their way of life. Conseqently she became an important figure in negotiations with the various tribes and the future kings of Syria and Iran.
While Gertrude was an important figure in shaping the history of the Middle East you don’t really get much of a sense of her character from this disappointingly lacklustre and conventional biopic from German director Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, Rescue Dawn, etc). We get a broad outline of her character but this somewhat superficial film doesn’t really delve much beneath the surface and we don’t get many insights into her.
The other major failing of this film is that it concentrates far too much on the banal romantic elements, looking at her troubled relationships with a number of influential men. There is the dashing but dull Henry Cadogan (a miscast James Franco), an embassy official who introduces Gertrude to the wonders of Arab culture; Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damien Lewis, from tv’s Homeland and Wolf Hall, etc), a married British Consul in the Damascus embassy; and there is the legendary T E Lawrence himself (here played by Twilight‘s Robert Pattinson).
Kidman has an ethereal quality about her that is put to good use as Gertrude, but she also brings an aloof quality to her performance. However she is not given a lot to work with here as the script doesn’t really develop the character. Pattinson is miscast in a small role as Lawrence, delivering a rather wooden and flat performance – it has hard to see his Lawrence inspiring the Arab tribes to unite against the Ottoman Empire during WWI. His performance lacks that strikingly charismatic and flamboyant quality that Peter O’Toole so memorably brought to the role in David Lean’s classic 1962 biopic Lawrence Of Arabia.
This is Herzog’s first narrative feature since 2009, and his direction is remarkably laid back and pedestrian and this overlong melodrama seems to crawl along. We fail to become engaged by Gertrude’s story and the audience fails to make an emotional connection with her character. However, the film is visually stunning, thanks to the gorgeous widescreen cinematography from his regular collaborator Peter Zeitlinger, who captures stunning and sweeping vistas of the desert landscapes. And Klaus Badelt’s occasionally stirring score pays homage to Maurice Jarre’s majestic score for Lawrence Of Arabia.
Queen Of The Desert is a rather dull film that plays out like an inferior Merchant Ivory production, and it wastes a good cast.