Queen of the Desert (IFC Films, PG-13)

This film is a tedious slog that does sad disservice to the remarkable woman whose story it purports to tell.

When an English-language film with brand-name stars hits the festival circuit in 2015 but doesn’t have an American theatrical release until two years later, there’s usually a reason. In the case of Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert, that reason is not far to seek: This film is a tedious slog that does sad disservice to the remarkable woman whose story it purports to tell.

Gertrude Bell deserves better. Born to a well-to-do family in Victorian England, she refused to confine herself within the acceptable role of an obedient daughter/wife/mother—instead taking a university degree (first-class honors in modern history from Oxford, no less) before embarking on a life of travel, study, and work. She spent much of her life in the Middle East, conducting archaeological research, working for British intelligence, witnessing the Armenian genocide, and helping create the modern state of Iraq.

Bell’s understanding of the Middle East, and her influence in shaping that region, have earned her the nickname of the “female Lawrence of Arabia.” Perhaps inevitably, Queen of the Desert has borrowed more than a bit, particularly in terms of music and cinematography, from David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, but Herzog’s film comes up short in every possible point of comparison with Lean’s film. Even the best aspect of Queen of the Desert—Peter Zeitlinger’s cinematography (shot in Jordan, Morocco, and the UK)—pales in comparison to Freddie Young’s work for Lean. While Zeitlinger’s work is beautiful in a decorative sort of way, Young’s was both meaningful and memorable, and there’s nothing in all of Queen of the Desert to match the power of, say, the cut from a burning match to the burning sun in Lawrence, or the sequence in which Sherif Ali first appears on screen.

Herzog wrote the screenplay for Queen of the Desert as well as directing it, so he has no one but himself to blame for the baffling decision to turn the life story of an unconventional and influential woman into a conventional glamour picture centering on her relationships with several men. Nevertheless, Nicole Kidman does yeoman work in creating Bell as a believable character and deserves a medal for the conviction with which she delivers a series of cringeworthy lines (“My heart belongs to no one but the desert!”) in the voiceovers accompanying this film’s many montages.

No one does cheesy boyish charm like James Franco, who puts his talents to use as diplomat Henry Cadogan, Bell’s first love interest. It doesn’t work out: Bell’s father (David Calder) rejects Cadogan as a suitor, and then Cadogan himself breaks it off, long distance style, through a symbolic device more suited to a children’s adventure story. On the plus side, this frees Bell to head back to the desert, until the appearance of romance number two, which involves a married military officer (Damian Lewis). You could also make a case for T.E. Lawrence (a fairly ridiculous Robert Pattinson, who looks like he can’t wait to get out of his costume) as the third man in Bell’s life.

Bell and Lawrence’s relationship is platonic, of course (he calls her “Gertie,” which I suppose is meant to indicate easy informality), but they do share relatively modern, enlightened views on the Middle East. “England needs to get out of its colonies sooner rather than later” says Bell, to which Lawrence responds “I tremble for my country when I reflect God is just”—the latter line cribbed without attribution from Thomas Jefferson.  That’s as close as this film gets to criticizing British colonialism, and their words do provide a welcome contrast to the attitude and behavior of the other British officials, whose nearest analogue is the mobsters carving up the Cuba cake in The Godfather, Part II.

What Queen of the Desert lacks, above all, is any sense of an organizing genius behind its creation. Instead, it feels as though Herzog gathered together, magpie-like, the elements required for an historical epic, then couldn’t decide what to do with them, so he produced a film that is part illustrated lecture, part History Channel-style reenactment, and part old-style Hollywood romance, with the varied elements undercutting rather than supplementing each other. It’s not nearly good enough: Gertrude Bell deserves better, and so do we. | Sarah Boslaugh

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