Queen of the Desert
Wikipedia tells us that Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was known for the “Foundation of Jordan and Iraq. Writer, traveler, political officer, archaeologist, explorer, cartographer in Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Arabia.” And what have you been up to lately?
Werner Herzog and Nicole Kidman have been busy making a splendorous and wind-swept film about Bell, whose Arab friends and colleagues called her Queen of the Desert. (This new film is not to be confused, please, with the 1994 Australian movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, about drag queens in the Outback.) Herzog’s lovely but flawed film recounts how Gertrude sprang the parameters of her aristocratic Victorian upbringing and ascended to the top echelon of kingmakers through her keen intellect and breathtaking daring.
Fresh from gaining top honors in history at Oxford, Gertrude (Kidman) is determined to pursue her dreams of traveling and making a difference in the world. With not too much difficulty, she persuades her beloved father of her need to take a foreign journey, and he allows her to visit her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, the British minister in Teheran. Thrilled by the wafting perfumes and intoxicating mysteries of the Orient, Gertrude undertakes to study the Persian language and immerse herself in the culture.
A kindred spirit appears from behind the silken brocades in the form of James Franco, poorly cast as British legation secretary Hon. Henry Cadogan. Henry and Gertrude bond over their love of Persian poetry, and soon become engaged. But when Gertrude’s family disapproves, she reluctantly yet obediently travels back to England. After Henry dies in mysterious circumstances, the heartbroken Gertrude heads once again to the Middle East. The desert calls.
As Gertrude embarks by her determined self with a trusted guide (Jay Abdo) in a caravan to crisscross the desert, British officers at various outposts attempt to use her knowledge of Arab relations to their political advantage. Among the personalities Gertrude encounters in her wanderings is T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson, jarring in Arab headdress), who similarly undertakes to live amongst and understand the various tribes. One of her staunch supporters is Maj. Charles Doughty-Wylie, an unhappily married man played by the elegant Damian Lewis. He and Gertrude fall in love, but the World War calls him off. Soon she is left alone again in the savage wilderness, where she feels most at home.
All this romance is atypical of Werner Herzog, who has been accused of making a crowd-pleasing costume drama. Still, there’s nothing wrong with pleasing a crowd, and the costumes are sumptuous. Some of Herzog’s earlier preoccupations are evident in the subject matter of Queen of the Desert: an intense, driven personality travels to the great unknown, testing the boundaries of existence. It’s unusual for him to make a film with a strong female character, but then Gertrude Bell was an unusual strong female. Nicole Kidman is spunky and smart in the role of trail-blazing Gertrude, though not quite believable as a hard-bitten adventurer. Less tragic love and more of Bell’s later accomplishments would have made for a fuller portrait of this fascinating personality who was, among many other things, the first woman officer in British military intelligence, a nation-builder, and the Director of Antiquities for the new nation of Iraq. A hundred years on, the world could use another keen interpreter of the intricacies of Middle Eastern relations such as Gertrude Bell.
Posted on KinoCritics website