Queen of the Desert, Werner Herzogs first feature narrative film since 2009s little-seen My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, tells the story of Gertrude Bell, an Englishwoman from a wealthy family who left convention behind in the early 20th century to become an intrepid explorer and expert on Arabia. Herzogs long-running preoccupation with the violence of nature and the eternal conflict between humanity and the natural elements we seek (and fail) to dominate finds a natural fit with Bells life, much of which was spent exploring desolate, virtually inhospitable parts of the Middle East that, to those in the West, were all but unknown and might as well have been at the bottom of the ocean or in outer space. She had a thirst for knowledge and an intense desire to meet and understand other cultures, which is why she was taken in by numerous otherwise hostile tribes and became absolutely essential to the British government in determining how the Ottoman Empire would be dismantled following World War I.
The film begins with Bell being discussed by Winston Churchill (Christopher Fulford) and the explorer T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattin) as a crucial component in determining how the vast expanse of Arabia would be divided and organized, which immediately establishes her as a figure of both intrigue and importance. We are then introduced to her two decades earlier as a young woman (Nicole Kidman) just recently graduated from Oxford who is straining against the confines of English society and the expectations of a woman of privilege. Chaffing at corsets, stiff dinner parties, and shallow, lustful men, she yearns to explore the world and rip free from the suffocating bonds of polite society. To her advantage is the fact that her father is a man of wealth and power who is able to send her to the British embassy in Tehran, which is headed by her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles (Mark Lewis Jones). This becomes the starting point for a new life in which she travels throughout the Middle East, documenting the land and the people who live there (including the Bedouins and the Druse), many of whom are wary if not directly antagonistic toward Western colonial powers. Yet, because Bell conveyed to them both a respect for their way of life and a real desire to understand it, not conquer it, she was able to penetrate otherwise closed off cultures that she came to love as if they were her owna meaningful message in a time when there is so much conflict, hatred, distrust, and xenophobia in the world, especially directed toward the Middle East.
It is unfortunate, then, that Queen of the Desert never quite comes together. Herzog has the elements he needs, including star Nicole Kidman, who brings to Bell a compelling balance of intensity of purpose and romantic longing, and the desert landscapes around Morocco, which supply plenty of what Herzog has famously called the voodoo of location. He has made a film of intense, ravishing beauty; working with his longtime cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger (they have collaborated on nearly 20 films, both feature and documentary, beginning with 1995s television documentary Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices), Herzog captures the intense splendor and relentlessness of the desert, turning the swirling grains of sand that undulate along the ground into a living, breathing presence.
Yet, the story tends to plod more than it should, partially because Herzog, who wrote the script himself, organizes it largely around Bells doomed romances with two men: Henry Cadogan (James Franco), one of her uncles secretaries in Tehran, and Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis), a married officer who supports her expeditions and falls in love with her in the process. Kidman doesnt have a great deal of chemistry with either Franco or Lewis, and as a result, their relationships never achieve the intensity and smolder that was clearly intended. Romantic longing has never really been part of Herzogs cinematic vocabulary (love in his films typically looks like manic obsession), which may explain why some of it is more stiff than emotionally moving. Kidman gives it her all, and she provides a sturdy center for the narrative, but, in the end, she isnt enough to keep the story from doing much more than lumbering along from one set-piece to the next, with our only other respite being the rapturous beauty of the images.
Copyright 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright IFC Films
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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