German director Werner Herzog is usually at his best when he tackles ambitious, obsessive, larger-than-life (and a little delusional) explorers and thrill seekers who create their own destiny and try to make a name for themselves whatever physical or psychological cost. Characters that somewhat mirror Herzog’s own drive as an artist and explorer. Sometimes these characters fail miserably, like in the case of “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” or “Grizzly Man,” and sometimes they succeed like in “Fitzcarraldo.” Either way, it’s an unforgettable and hypnotic cinematic journey.
Unfortunately, in the case of his latest picture “Queen of the Desert,” about the life of explorer Gertrude Bell, the journey is mostly just dull and repetitive, which is especially disappointing. Even Herzog’s lesser films are still eccentric and enigmatic enough to hold your interest.
Born to an affluent family, Bell (Nichol Kidman) quickly escaped a life of bland domesticity in England and headed off for the Middle East. At the dawn of the twentieth century she traveled around Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and Arabia, writing down her observations, working as an archeologist and made lasting friendships and political partnerships with the native people. Eventually her work was used by the British government to establish the countries of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran following the Arab revolt.
“Queen of the Desert” may be Herzog’s most glossy and romanticized film. The seventy four year old director loves the infinite sun drenched sand dunes (with people on camelback crossing over them) contrasted against the cloudless, baby blue sky. And as the title suggests, Herzog clearly has great affection and admiration for his subject—portraying Bell in such a radiant and glamorous light. She’s intelligent and fiercely independent--traversing this dangerous terrain unescorted with confidence and some stubbornness. At the same time, Bell is graceful and down to earth in her interactions with the local people. She treats them as fellow human beings (with respect and dignity) and not as imperial subjects, or worse, as “the other.”
However, “Queen of the Desert” never finds its footing. This is partly due to the picture’s immense scope and traditional biopic structure; there’s enough material here to fill a three-hour film or a miniseries. But at two hours and eight minutes the picture feels frustratingly abbreviated—mechanically moving through various chapters in Bell’s life without any of them really making an impression. Bell’s expeditions and meetings with different Arab tribes are interesting but far too brief in duration. During one expedition, there’s a great moment where Bell bonds with a Sheik over their shared love of the poet Virgil. But after this quick moment of genuine and unexpected human-to-human connection the action cuts to Bell’s next expedition. It would have been nice to see more of her interactions with this particular Sheik and his people.
The expeditions should be the meat of the film but far too often they fizzle out or get glossed over so Herzog can have more repetitive “Lawrence of Arabia”-esque montages of Bell riding her camel through the desert, or showing her writing in her journal, or pensively staring out into the horizon. Furthermore, the film’s abbreviated nature renders the Arab people that Bell comes into contact with one-dimensional. Even Bell’s trusted assistant/guide Fattuah, (Jay Abdo) who was apparently important enough in real life to warrant his own epilogue in the film’s closing minutes is treated like a thinly sketched acquaintance.
The only material that makes any kind of lasting impression is Bell’s romantic life. Herzog devotes a large chunk of the movie to Bell’s affair with British Embassy secretary Henry Cagdon (James Franco) and later she has an affair (mostly via letters) with British army officer Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damien Lewis). This is all well and good but considering “Queen of the Desert” is about an independent minded explorer it feels weird (and little insulting) that her romantic life is the only resonant aspect of the film.
Near the end, the picture introduces a potentially interesting wrinkle: the tension between Arab independence and British colonialism. Even after helping them revolt against the Ottoman Empire, Britain still wanted control/influence over that area. After all, they’re the ones who cut up the land and determined the boundaries of those countries. However this intriguing dilemma (and Bell’s own conflicted role in it) comes too late and ends up feeling like an afterthought, another stale bullet point. In its attempt to be a sweeping period romance, a biopic and an epic adventure picture, “Queen of the Desert” is ultimately bland and unfocused.