Queen of the Desert (2015)

One woman can change the course of history

There’s an interesting, fascinating, even insightful film about English traveler/ archaeologist/ author/ cartographer/ political officer Gertrude Bell waiting to be made but Queen of the Desert ain’t it. Based on the life of Gertrude Bell, one of Britain’s most accomplished and influential explorers, Queen of the Drivel, I mean Desert sees prolific German filmmaker Werner Herzog, Grizzly Man (2005), crash and burn as he fails to unravel the richness behind Bell’s story or the reasons as to why this prominent late 1800’s figure abandoned her wealthy lifestyle in order to travel and document the wastelands of the Middle East.

Herzog’s first feature film in six years, Queen of the Dingleberry follows Bell’s journey chronologically. When we first meet British born Gertrude (Nicole Kidman), she’s in her twenties, bored by her charmed, privileged surroundings, eager to spread her wings and see the world. After persuading her mother Florence (Jenny Agutter) and father Hugh (David Calder) to let her leave the nest, Gertrude travels to Tehran, where she joins her carefree uncle Frank (Mark Lewis Jones), the British Ambassador for Persia. There she meets charismatic diplomat Henry Cadogan (James Franco), the pair igniting a romance that ends in heartache. Following the tragedy, Gertrude embarks on a trek across the sandy dunes in the hope of discovering untouched places, conversing with those who occupy the unknown terrain. Making several allies – including T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) and Lieutenant Colonel Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) – along the way, Gertrude eventually helps shape the boundaries of what we know as modern-day Iraq, the locals dubbing her the Queen of the Desert.

'I will never desert you.'
‘I will never desert you.’

Opening in a 1902 that sees Queen Victoria still very much alive and kicking, even though she passed away in January of 1901, Queen of the Douche shows its cracks early on. Lazily plotted by Herzog himself, this dull, tedious affair lacks insight, particularly into Gertrude’s headspace and the reasons as to why this Oxford-educated semi-aristocrat choose to throw herself into a life of chaste, solitude and wandering — all we get is some crap about Gertrude’s heart belonging to the sand. There’s some schmaltz focusing on Bell’s relationships with her lovers that’s so poorly dramatized, one would assume they were watching a daytime soap — this depiction reducing the no-nonsense Bell to a product of the men around her. What’s more, the picture plods along at a grueling 128 minutes, Herzog convinced that he’s making a contemporary Lawrence of Arabia — the 1962 masterpiece based around the actions of T.E. Lawrence during the First World War. You see, there’s little tension throughout Gertrude’s entire nomadic expedition as she’s (conveniently) welcomed by every tribe she meets, riding off into the sunset (after some chit-chat), with more enlightenment than that of the hapless viewer. Furthermore, Herzog’s coarse and hollow dialogue cheapens the solid work by cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, Grizzly Man (2005), production designer Ulrich Bergfelder, My Best Friend (1999), and some of the A-list cast.

Nicole Kidman, The Hours (2002), is ‘okay’ (acting wise) as the rule-disregarding Gertrude Bell, whose porcelain looks don’t waver throughout the course of her life’s journey, with Kidman, at times, coming across like a runaway model auditioning for a swords-and-sandals themed fashion show. James Franco, 127 Hours (2010), is sorely miscast as the British civil servant Henry Cadogan, whose fiery romance with Bell can be likened to the unpleasant sear of a urinary tract infection. Franco’s attempt at an English accent is downright laughable, too. Damian Lewis from television’s Homeland (2011) fares better as Charles Doughty-Wylie, the married army-officer who peruses Bell in her post-Franco period, but the flick’s sloppy outdated dialogue drains all the life out of the affair. Robert Pattinson, Water for Elephants (2011), doesn’t get much screen time as T.E. Lawrence but does manage to deliver a bouncier rendering of the renowned adventurer than Peter O’Toole, who donned the iconic head-scarf in Lawrence of Arabia. Oddly, the picture’s most impressive performances come from its minor players. Mark Lewis Jones, Troy (2004), steals all his scenes as Bell’s jaunty uncle Frank who presides over an embassy that delights in debauchery while Holly Earl, Dracula: The Dark Prince (2013), radiates as his daughter Florence Lascelles, a young woman trying to grapple with her raging hormones — it’s just a shame the Lascelles weren’t given more screen time.

Robert Pattinson is ... The Sultan of Sleaze
Robert Pattinson is … The Sultan of Sleaze

At the end of the day Werner Herzog’s clunky wannabe epic bombs on multiple levels; it fails as an examination into the powerful historical figure of Gertrude Bell, portrayed here as a weary rich girl who one day decided to take up archaeology. Herzog also botches the screenplay with unintentional laughs and overcooked melodrama, while the flick’s stars deliver sub-par performances that (I’m sure) they too would rather forget. There’s no depth, no passion, nada. Plus everyone looks bored — Herzog should seriously stick to documentaries. Queen of the Desert. No thanks, not unless her name is Priscilla.

1.5 / 5 – Poor

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

Queen of the Desert is released through Transmission Films Australia