Queen of the Desert
Berlinale 2015: Werner Herzog and Nicole Kidman tell the story of Gertrude Bell
From Fitzcarraldo to Rescue Dawn, Werner Herzog is no stranger to exploring inhospitable lands in his films. So it makes sense that he should be drawn to the story of the indefatigable Englishwoman Gertrude Bell for his latest feature Queen of the Desert. An archaeologist, linguist and even spy, who did much to shape the modern-day Middle East, Bell is certainly a rich figure to play with.
A friend to TE Lawrence – yes, he of Arabia fame – she existed in a world where women were rarely seen outside the home, let alone travelling the desert and ruffling the feathers of the British government. So quite why writer-director Herzog, in his first narrative film in six years, has decided to frame her achievements inside a rather schmaltzy romantic adventure is both surprising and disappointing. Imagine Hallmark remaking David Lean's biopic of the aforementioned military hero and you're some way there.
Much of the problem with Queen of the Desert lies in its casting. Nicole Kidman, as Bell, may fare better than she did as Grace Kelly in the risible Grace of Monaco, but she hardly looks desert-hardened. Robert Pattinson, in a brief appearance as Lawrence, simply wilts on screen. And James Franco, as Henry Cadogan, the Tehran embassy diplomat who becomes Gertrude's husband until tragedy strikes, is frighteningly wooden. Better is Damian Lewis as Major Charles Doughty-Wylie, Gertrude's second great love. By this point, Bell has spent years in the desert, fearlessly befriending Bedouin leaders at the time the British were dividing up the spoils of the crumbling Ottoman Empire.
While Herzog and his cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger shoot the desert beautifully, the storytelling is so leaden it's hard to warm to, and unintentionally amusing dialogue abounds. Perhaps a documentary would have served Bell better, for her life more than merits celebration.
Screening as part of the Berlin International Film Festival 2015. General release TBC.