Review: Queen of the Desert (AFI FEST 2015)
PLOT: The life of Gertrude Bell is examined as she traveled the deserts of the Middle East in the late 1800’s. As an archaeologist and explorer, she became one of the most influential names in Britain’s history due to her knowledge and contacts made during her dangerous journeys.
REVIEW: There is breathtaking beauty within Werner Herzog’s portrait of renowned explorer Gertrude Bell. Played with radiance by leading lady Nicole Kidman, Bell was a woman who accomplished much on her travels across the deserts of the Middle East. Her motivation for this however is so inadequate revealed in QUEEN OF THE DESERT that you are left to wonder why she risked her own life, and the men who accompanied her. The screenplay, also written by Herzog, is mercilessly old-fashioned, and it fails to really unravel Bell’s story. This is a gorgeously shot. But it is ultimately an empty story, one that seems more interested in showing off it’s all star cast instead of really creating a satisfying examination of a woman who would ultimately become a very powerful figure for the British Empire.
When we first meet Gertrude (Kidman), she is a woman bored by her charmed life with her father (David Calder) and mother (Jenny Agutter). She convinces them to let her travel where she finds a little excitement with a guardian by the name of Henry Cadogan (James Franco). The two share a romance and the hope for marriage, one that her father quickly refuses to give his consent. After a tragic end to the love affair, Gertrude decides to travel across the desert in hopes of exploring unknown places and meeting those occupying this untouched world. This includes Col. T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) and Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) as well as a number of Arabian men of power.
If you are looking for insight into the story of Gertrude Bell, you won’t get it here. The reason she decides to pack up and head across the desert is not especially clear. Clearly she is more than a world traveler, but she comes across here as an incredibly wealthy woman that is bored of her surroundings. Along her journeys, she charms a number of powerful men that rule the desert lands. Every single time they welcome her without any real tension. After she charms them, she rides off into the sunset with more knowledge than the audience seems to have. It is a tedious affair that apparently ignites from the loss of her first romance. Whatever her rationale as to why she would take such risks, it is impossible to gather from what is on-screen.
As Gertrude, Ms. Kidman manages to give a very good performance. She is quite luminous, and it is fun to watch her use her wit on the men in her life. Unfortunately it isn’t enough to really fuel any real heart or vitality into this bland script. Her co-stars are fine. Both Lewis and Pattinson are good enough, and Franco has a sort of quirky chemistry with his leading lady. Yet the dialogue can be laughable, and it fails to give any insight into Bell’s adventures. Several times throughout, she quite literally walks into a dangerous situation and is able to charm a man who could easily have her and her fellow travelers killed. And just like that, they offer her a meal and a place to stay. As somebody not familiar with Bell’s exploits, I feel like this movie is more than an oversimplification of the real life events.
The best thing you can say about QUEEN OF THE DESERT is the impressive photography. Herzog and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger are able to capture the beauty of the desert rather well. The use of time-lapse photography with an ever changing sky is impressive. Yet even this gets a bit repetitive, as does the constant use of a map to show where she is traveling next. In many ways this feels a bit like an old Hollywood production that relied heavily on it’s stars as opposed to a satisfying story. Even with all the beauty, it is ultimately a very stale and passionless project that fails to really deliver her story.
As great a director as Werner Herzog is, this epic tale is an unsatisfying examination of an important part of history. Instead of a powerful historical figure, Bell simply comes across a bored rich girl who apparently is an archaeologist and explorer. Of course, the real Gertrude Bell probably had a much deeper reasoning to journey into a great unknown than her on-screen portrayal. This is not the fault of Kidman, who does a fine job in the leading role. Mostly to blame is the script which offers a few unintentional laughs thanks to it’s heavy-handed melodrama. It doesn’t help that this is a sloppily edited feature with a generic score, one that ends up as a lifeless feature film biography. There is no real insight, or passion, in this occasionally silly film. There is a great story to be told about Gertrude Bell I’m sure, but this is not it.
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