Queen of the Desert is a biopic that includes a serious line of dialogue incorporating the film’s title, in reference to its central subject, who then turns slowly to the camera with a somber look. This occurs just before the pre-credits wrap-up text gives us the CliffsNotes version of the rest of her life. Inanity rules this wasteland.
There’s no oasis in the dryness, the film ambling listlessly while attempting to tell the tale of a fascinating individual. Gertrude Bell, a British writer and explorer who was a key figure in Middle East policy-making in the early 20th century, is played by a game Nicole Kidman, though the character is reduced to a collection of sullen stares, limp existential philosophies scrawled into her diary and narrated to us, and a couple of saggy romances.
This is a complete misfire, made all the more confounding because it comes from provocateur Werner Herzog. The German director has followed many adventurers in his documentaries and narrative features, typically finding an interesting way to explore the psychology of his subjects along with the landscapes, but here there’s no tangible substance. Maybe his distinctive voiceovers could’ve added a layer of interest. Or helped keep us awake. The sandy scenery is gorgeous at least, though the several shots of grains blowing in the wind are an all-too-perfect representation of the barren bluster of Queen of the Desert.
This story of Bell begins with her being bored by potential suitors and openly dreaming of bucking gender stereotypes and living a life of adventure. Her father, Sir Hugh Bell (David Calder), helpfully goes through her resume aloud, which includes being a woman with a rare amount of higher education. Her travels first take her to the embassy in Tehran, where all that’s explored is a relationship with Henry Cadogan (James Franco, badly miscast as an English gentleman). The breadth of their love is represented by a coin that’s broken in two halves. Lame melodramatic choices like this, and the use of a magic trick during courtship, are nearly as curious as Franco’s accent.
Eventually, Bell finds her way onto the back of camel and journeys through Mesopotamia, coming into contact with Bedouins, some of them hostile, though nothing that can’t be solved by platitude-filled conversations with elders and sheiks. As she takes photos and documents her findings, it’s never clear what influence she is wielding, what exactly her duties are, or what is driving her to do them beyond the surface emotion. Also murky is how the legend of Bell spread and what exactly she did to define the borders of modern-day Iraq and Jordan.
After getting lost in the desert for a tedious walkabout, the film falls back into more interpersonal entanglements, including a completely artificial-feeling affair with British Army officer Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis).
What could’ve been more interesting and relevant to Bell’s accomplishments – and sap-free – is her connection to T.E. Lawrence, but he’s a minor presence here, included as a biographical bullet point. As embodied by Robert Pattinson, through no fault of the actor, he also looks more like a kid playing a shepherd in a nativity scene than a major player in the Arab Revolt.
All of Queen of the Desert feels like dressed-up memoir without a thing to say, and with nothing that connects emotionally or intellectually. It’s a portrait of a daring woman from a daring filmmaker that’s far from bold.