In no way, shape, or fashion does “Queen of the Desert” qualify as a good movie, but for fans of Werner Herzog — those of us who have followed cinema’s Teutonic imp of the perverse since the 1970s, when he was staging all-dwarf fables and sending conquistadors across mountains — it is fascinating and something close to a must-see. Filmed in late 2013 and released around most of the planet last year, it finally backs cautiously into US cinemas now.
It’s easy to understand why Herzog might be attracted to the true story of Gertrude Bell, a British archaeologist and adventurer who voyaged across Arabia in the years before World War I and who was present at its division into the fractious nations of today. The director has always been fascinated by maverick spirits, and who could be more of a maverick than an Edwardian-era woman voyaging nearly alone into unmapped territory?
Yet the script Herzog himself has written to dramatize Bell’s life, and the film he has made from that script, is laughably hollow and inert. How did the director of “Fitzcarraldo” and “Grizzly Man” come to make this flabby imitation “Lawrence of Arabia,” complete with a cast of stars that prompt giggles when they turn up in period wear and a full-throated orchestral score that howls as unceasingly as the desert winds? Surely there must be something else going on here?
Maybe yes, maybe no. I will say that Nicole Kidman shoulders the burden of playing Bell from post-Oxford youth to post-WWI world-weariness with grace, spine, subdued glamour, and a remarkable aversion to aging; it’s a sympathetic but studied performance that never even gets around to posing the question of Gertrude Bell, let alone finding the answer.
Desperate to get out of stuffy old England, Bell lands at the embassy in Tehran, where she meets and falls in love with third under-secretary Henry Cadogan, played by James Franco with a remarkably straight face given the amount of Omar Khayyam he has to recite. Then it’s off to the desert and years of wandering among the Bedouin tribes, befriending sheiks and gradually becoming known as the Noble Lady while various representatives of the British Empire look on with alarm (Nick Waring’s stiffbacked Colonel Sykes), passion (a married consul played by Damian Lewis), and respect (“Twilight” sigh guy Robert Pattinson in a fey turn as T.E. Lawrence himself).
Bell remains an arresting and misunderstood figure, as important to the era as Lawrence but much less known. She advised the British throughout the Great War and was a power-broker
afterward; she witnessed the Armenian Genocide. A more traditional movie — which isn’t to say a better one — might position her as a fierce feminist pioneer. A more traditional Herzog movie, by contrast, might let the madness run riot.
Instead, “Queen of the Desert” pursues shades of gray until they go muddy. The heroine needs no man in her life yet is always pining for a distant lover; she refuses to be a spy for the British army yet her wartime experiences with Lawrence are entirely passed over; she values the Bedouin tribes more than any Westerners but is sitting next to Winston Churchill (Christopher Fulford) at the 1921 Cairo conference helping him redraw the map that has turned out, 100 years
later, to be so calamitous for everyone involved.
Don’t think that Herzog isn’t aware of that irony, or that Bell survived and forged alliances with the various warring factions by using diplomacy, deference, and respect rather than bullets. What would the world of 2017 look like if women had been in charge of history a century ago? That’s the question that hangs like a distant sandstorm over this hapless, bloodless epic. Somewhere in “Queen of the Desert” is a Werner Herzog movie screaming to get out.
Queen of the Desert
Written and directed by Werner Herzog. Starring Nicole Kidman, Damian Lewis, James Franco, Robert Pattinson. At West Newton, suburbs. 117 minutes. PG-13 (brief nudity, thematic elements).