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USA/Morocco 2015
Directed by
Werner Herzog
128 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

Queen Of The Desert

Synopsis. A portrait of real-life English-born writer, traveller, sometime spy and political administrator, Gertrude Lowthian Bell (Nicole Kidman), who around the time of the Great War, along with T. E. Lawrence (Robert Pattison), was one of the leading figures in the geo-political mapping of the Middle East as we know it today. .

Although Werner Herzog is a deservedly highly-regarded director with a taste for larger-than life subjects and a marvellously diverse portfolio, it must be said that his best work in the realm of narrative cinema was done in the first decade or so of his career. He has since then largely made his mark as a masterful documentarian with a particular interest in the troubled side of human experience. Queen of the Desert does nothing to alter this general assessment, something which, especially given the film’s unconventional protagonist and historical basis, is a more than a tad disappointing.

The chief problem with the film, which is superbly photographed by Herzog’s regular collaborator, Peter Zeitlinger, and graced with a handsome production design by Ulrich Bergfelder who worked on the director’s 1982 classic Fitzcarraldo is that Herzog, who also wrote the script, fails to give us any material insight into why Bell had the standing she had with both the British and the Arabs. Yes, we see her asserting herself with the British military administration, hopelessly at sea in an alien culture, and charming various Arab leaders with her no-nonsense demeanour but other than taking a couple of photographs she doesn’t actually appear to do anything with her experiences. Instead Herzog devotes a good deal of the film’s two hour plus running time to imagining Bell’s romantic dolours. Despite the film’s would-be mythicizing ending with Bell riding her camel towards the horizon to the accompaniment of  Klaus Badelt’s thunderously rousing score and ululating Arab voices, Florence of Arabia, Herzog’s Bell is not. Nor does his film come close to Lean’s iconic masterpiece. Rather it is reminiscent of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky (1990), that is, visually engaging but dramatically lukewarm.

Kidman who is nearing her fifties does a fine job of portraying the young Bell, chafing under the dreary conventions of upper-class English life (her father was a wealthy industrialist) and yearning to know the world at first-hand. But having established via some expository dialogue that she was Oxford-educated and highly intelligent Herzog gives her little to do but play the conventionally elegant romantic leading lady capturing hearts aplenty while looking fashionably poised whether at an embassy soirée or perched atop a camel in the middle of the desert. Whilst James Franco just manages not to make us laugh as her diffidently charming but doomed true love, he is otherwise largely decorative. But in what fit of madness was Robert Pattinson cast as T.E.Lawrence?  If he had carried it off and somehow supplanted our memory of Peter O’Toole that might have been something but as he is outstandingly awful, a slightly camp, wise-cracking brat in an ill-fitting keffiyeh, there is no excuse for it.

Gertrude Bell may well have been as equally significant historically as the much better-known Lawrence but if Herzog’s film was intended to set the record straight it hasn’t worked – it feels more like a beat-up.




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