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Once again, in only a week, we have another film from visionary director Werner Herzog, and like his just-released Salt and Fire, we are met with a film of curious beauty and impending message that is a wonder to look at even as it slightly loses sight of its intent. More traditional and easily more approachable than Salt and Fire, Queen Of The Desert is a higher budget film with more recognizable faces and features some truly memorable moments, telling a powerful story of a woman perhaps few have ever heard.
Young Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman) is a restless and intelligent woman bouncing off the walls in England, Oxford-educated but tethered by social pressures that leave her with no challenges. With the help of her father, she soon enough finds herself in the Middle East, at that time under British control where she begins a secret romance with a junior diplomat named James Cadogan (James Franco), learning of the culture and language. When their relationship is shattered, she takes to writing and ventures deeper into the Bedouin lifestyle becoming a powerful and trusted figure, her name well- known but not adored by all, including other men who come to pursue her.
Bell’s considerable contributions are astonishing, she wearing many hats in her relatively short life, from archaeologist to spy to explorer to influential political advisor. She is widely held responsible for delivering the modern state of Iraq, her unique relationships and understanding of the many desert tribal leaders instrumental in shaping relations with the Western world. Herzog clearly shows great respect for his subject and even more so for the land she travelled within, exposing us to stirring imagery as only Herzog can. In-between the tempered and carefully constructed period dialogue are staggering views of a land in ancient geographical turmoil.
But this is Bell’s story and while we do see her dabbling in bits of the aforementioned capacities, Herzog runs her more around and afoul of important men, including some who would carve their own names in history. That includes T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) whose interest in her is one of inspired regard more than anything else, though Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis), a Major in the British army whose marriage to another woman is more than troubling for him.
These men and their interactions with Bell paint the larger picture, and perhaps Herzog is painting broadly on purpose to reveal attitudes of the time, though it does strip a bit of her own impact. That doesn’t mean Herzog steers away from opportunities to open our eyes, often giving the people of the desert and the Middle East great moments of dignity and humanity. He seems almost playful in setting up expectations only to reverse them immediately.
As for Kidman, she is very good as Bell, giving the famed woman a centered presence that while abridged to be sure, is affecting, especially once she sets off into distant lands. That’s not to say her early scenes with Franco aren’t good, just more compelling. Herzog shows a rare bit of romantic compassion in these moments and Franco does best keeping it subdued.
At more than two hours, the film edges into epic territory though doesn’t quite have the epic feel of its obvious counterpart, Lawrence Of Arabia. Long moments of stillness and gentle conversation fill the film with information however, there is, even at that length, a feeling that we still don’t know Gertrude Bell as well as we should. Nonetheless, we recognize her courage and immeasurable thirst for knowledge and walk away in search of learning more.
Movie description: Queen Of The Desert is a biographical drama released internationally in 2015 and the United States in 2017 about the life of a British woman explorer in the early years of the 20th century.
Director(s): Werner Herzog
Actor(s): Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Damian Lewis
Genre: Drama, Biography