Connect with us


Queen of the Desert | AFI Film Festival Review

Hey, Queen: Herzog Can’t Convey Passion in the Desert

Queen of the Desert PosterAcclaim does not seem to be the fate of Werner Herzog’s latest film, the long gestating and independently produced Queen of the Desert, a biopic of explorer Gertrude Bell, a name holding more reverence abroad and to aficionados of British history. In the German auteur’s first narrative feature since the delightfully weird 2009 double trouble duo of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and My Son My Son What Have Ye Done?, Herzog’s attempt at crowning Bell with a rightful epic legacy of her own falls short in many regards, though most noticeably with stupendously distracting casting choices. Herzog has purportedly refashioned his historical drama with a more streamlined cut. Despite a number of ambitious elements evident throughout the oddly textured feature, it remains a disappointing entry from the usually enigmatic director.

Beginning in 1902, Oxford educated aristocrat Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman) evades the usual trajectory of expectations for women by begging her father to travel abroad. Accepting a post at the Embassy in Tehran, she begins a romance with an official, Harry Cadogan (James Franco). While he isn’t deemed worthy of marrying Gertrude and she travels home to convince her parents otherwise, Henry dies, and Gertrude casts herself into the desert to study Bedouin tribes, vowing to never love another. As years pass and Gertrude networks her way across the desert, Winston Churchill utilizes her knowledge and skill to unite the disparate Middle East.

It’s impossible to regard Queen of the Desert without the inescapable shadow of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, the classic 1962 historical epic which starred Peter O’Toole as the titular T.E. Lawrence. At the time, Lean was unable to directly address Lawrence’s homosexuality, something made glaringly clear by O’Toole’s flamboyant performance. This same sense of hushed secrecy is reflected in this updated affectation of Lawrence thanks to Robert Pattinson’s meaningful quips and phrases during interactions with Kidman. His limited screen time enhances these passing moments of energetic banter while Bell’s romantic entanglements are weighted down in banal cliché. In the match-burning contest, Herzog’s film can’t compete with Lean’s earlier epic, but cultural repression of queer representation forced us to regard multiple angles of Lawrence and granted O’Toole a complex palette of characterization. Not so with Kidman’s Bell, who seems as transfixed by the romances in her life as the Earth is subjected to the gravity of the sun.

For her part, Kidman does give a nicely moderated performance and she’s engaging to watch as ever. However, the film’s insistence on making the actress portray a woman in her mid-20s to early 50’s is distracting, especially since most of the biopic prizes the earlier portion of Bell’s journeys. To watch Kidman go through tiring motions at a debutant ball (where English rose Jenny Agutter briefly appears as her mother) or become a supplicant at her father’s feet as she begs to marry below her station grants these minor moments a demeaning energy. These are the types of expository details to be whittled into slivers of flashback, especially since the script can’t convey a believable romance between Bell and Cadogan. And here, casting becomes entirely problematic again.

With a questionable accent and mopey lurch, James Franco attempts to convince us of a romantic entanglement, but why Herzog did not insist on a notable British actor, of which there are plenty, only adds to the considerable ungainly first act of the film. From there, the film skips right into Bell’s supposed death wish upon her lover’s demise, flinging herself into the desert with a mini-caravan atop a pack of camels while her omniscient narration informs us her heart now belongs there.

Despite these nagging issues concerning age appropriateness, there’s a softness to Kidman which makes her girlish sequences believable and even sometimes charming, while she does deliver an increased timber in her voice as Bell comes into her own. But these feel like clichés populating 80s epics built around reputations of serious leading ladies, and Queen of the Desert begins to feel like another example of ‘white lady wonder’ as Kidman traipses around the Middle East. Her initial intentions also feel vaguely attenuated—why exactly she is putting herself into harm’s way? Because she has nothing better to and comes from a family of great privilege seems to be an element skirted around uncomfortably, until, finally, the film can properly convey her importance in Churchill’s plans to unite the clashing segments of the unruly Middle East and show how her cartography eventually fashioned the region as it is known today.

DoP Peter Zeitlinger, who regularly works with Herzog, captures some beautiful widescreen expanses, but since the film is lacking in any real emotional potency, even these moments feel like distractions meant to pass time. Herzog’s usual penchant for exotic animal motifs is dialed down considerably this time around, with only an all too brief vulture cameo and several chatty camels to provide a bit of furry flair.

Maurice Jarre’s timeless score from Lean’s film seems to inform Klaus Bedelt’s compositions here, and one wonders why Herzog didn’t attempt something a bit less predictable considering Bell’s historical connection to Lawrence. Although Queen of the Desert isn’t a film to completely write off, it has the misfortune of not reaching the considerable heights of expectation from such an offbeat auteur, and seems instead like a safely mounted project we’d expect to see Ron Howard unveil.

Reviewed on November 8 at the 2015 AFI Film Festival – Special Presentations. 112 Mins.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

Click to comment

More in Reviews

To Top