QUEEN OF THE DESERT
Director: Werner Herzog
Cast: Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Damian Lewis, Robert Pattinson, Jay Abdo, Jenny Agutter, David Calder, Nick Waring, Christopher Fulford
MPAA Rating: (for brief nudity and some thematic elements)
Running Time: 2:08
Release Date: 4/14/17 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 13, 2017
Writer/director Werner Herzog's Queen of the Desert offers a visceral portrait of the sand and heat of the Middle East. The movie, shot on location in Morocco and Jordan, has the sort of authenticity of setting that is, at least, nice to observe. Nicole Kidman plays Gertrude Bell, the famed-in-her-time but mostly lost-to-history writer and archeologist, and to show that the authenticity ends with the sun and the sand, her complexion remains as fair at the end of years of traveling through the desert as it was while she was living in gloomy England.
Herzog clearly envisions this movie as a grand epic of fierce independence, tragic romance, politics within a changing world, and how the decisions of people in power of the past can reverberate for a century. It's mostly shots of Kidman and company wandering the desert without any clear goal or communication about the importance of her Bell's various encounters with various tribes throughout the region. Meanwhile, in a complete contradiction to the entire "woman on her own" thing, her heart, remains with two men at different points in her life.
Whatever impact the real Bell may have had in shaping the modern borders of the Middle East is left mostly to an epilogue in which she is not present (and a coda that tells us about the kind of character we might actually want to see in a movie). Either the absence of her counsel was part of the problem in the definition of modern borders in the region, or it was a decision that was beyond anyone's control or understanding. Herzog doesn't have an opinion on the matter, which is a strange position for a filmmaker to take while trying to solidify a protagonist's influence on the course of history.
The result is that Herzog hasn't really made a movie about Bell. He has made a movie about the places and people of the desert, in which Bell just happens to appear. Strangely, Bell is secondary to the movie's purpose, and stranger still, her desire for exploration and understanding is secondary to a pair of unconvincing romances with unobtainable men—both unobtainable on account of social norms that she so readily defies in every other part of her life.
Bell comes from a wealthy family in England, and she convinces her father (David Calder) to place her in the British Embassy in Teheran. There, she meets Henry Cadogan (James Franco), who impresses her with a card trick and a silver coin from the age of Alexander the Great (that he, rather dumbly, cuts in half as a symbol of their bond).
Henry is not long for the world, of course, and his unexplained death prompts Bell to set her own course. She is going to explore then-Arabia, understand the cultures of various tribes, and search for signs of ancient civilization.
The story is mostly formless and, as a result, rather disorienting. Herzog never adequately establishes a sense of geography here, despite his use of a map with a red line denoting Bell's travels (There's a moment where a shot marking a departure from Damascus is used twice within five minutes, despite Bell's group being in a different location the second time around, meaning that Herzog might not have a solid foundation of where his characters are in space and time at any given moment).
The movie rambles from one place to another and from one uneventful encounter to another. Of most significance are Bell's interactions with assorted tribes in the region, all of whom welcome her with the sacred oath of hospitality and offer information that means little to her expedition—and even less to the bigger picture of the eventual division of the area by European powers as the Ottoman Empire falls. She encounters T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) in Petra, and the two have the only conversation that approaches any sort of understanding about the drive to explore. Even it isn't much.
Much of the expedition is narrated by means of Bell's personal diaries, and much of those writings is dedicated to her thoughts on Henry and, later, Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis), a married officer in the British Army stationed in Damascus, who supports Bell's work when no one else does. Those romances feel like the most important element of Queen of the Desert, and it undermines just about everything for which the woman, who only exists here in the movie's final text, stood.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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