On paper Queen of the Desert, directed by Werner Herzog, certainly looked like one of the films to watch in this year’s Berlinale Competition; I even picked it for my feature ‘Berlinale – Our Most Anticipated Films’. Herzog’s first narrative feature since Bad Lieutenant, there were high hopes surrounding Queen of the Desert, and although the film looks to hit the right notes, it ultimately doesn’t deliver.
Telling the true story of British explorer, and eventual political officer Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman), the film follows the protagonist over the course of 12 years. We start with Gertrude as a young, educated woman, whose lack of fulfilment (and a husband, much to her mother’s dismay) leads to her father agreeing to send her to the Tehran embassy to stay with her Uncle. Here she meets Henry Cadogan (James Franco) who introduces her to Farsi, the Orient, and the wonders of the desert. The pair fall in love, only to be cruelly separated, and Bell takes to the desert to forget her heartache. During her travels she meets Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) a married man who she falls in love with, only to be met with yet more heartbreak.
By all accounts Bell was a truly fascinating woman – unfortunately for us the only story Herzog seems interested in telling revolves around her love life. There are barely any other women in the film apart from Kidman, and those that are on screen, are only there for a couple of minutes at a time. In contrast, every man seems entranced with Bell, with more than one (3? 4? I lost count after a while) exclaiming that they would literally die for a woman like her. With so much time dedicated to Bell’s double heartbreak, not much is told of her breaking new boundaries in the Middle East. This is a terrible shame, as it is when the politics come in to play and Bell has to diplomatically defuse difficult situations that the film really picks up.
However, I wouldn’t go as far to say that the film is a complete failure, and that is due in-part to Kidman’s portrayal of Bell. She is certainly believable as the type of woman that would invoke such devotion in men; soft and tough in equal parts, and is a pleasure to watch. Herzog manages to find some warmth in Kidman, well-known for her distant demeanour.
With the exception of Robert Pattinson as T.E. Lawrence, her male counterparts are somewhat lacking. Damian Lewis is functional in his role, but his presence on screen left me feeling a bit bored. James Franco on the other hand, was much more entertaining, and for a lot of the wrong reasons. His first arrival on-screen involved him awkwardly creeping into frame from behind a bush, and his attempts at an English accent elicited more than a few laughs from the audience.
Played out like an old-fashioned, sprawling Hollywood romance, rather than a true look at the amazing things Gertrude Bell achieved, Queen of the Desert is quite the let down. Although perfectly servicable as an epic romantic tale, it feels like the film could have been made by anyone, rather than one of the greatest directors around today.
Genre: Biography, Drama Venue:Berlinale 2015 Director:Werner Herzog Cast: James Franco, Nicole Kidman, Robert Pattinson, Damien Lewis, Jenny Agutter, Christopher Fulford