Queen of the Desert
Starring Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Robert Pattinson, Damian Lewis, Jay Abdo
Oscar nominated documentarian Werner Herzog returns to his first feature film after nearly six years. Queen of the Desert was actually shot back in 2015, just now being released and distributed. There isn’t much of an explanation as to why, the epic historical drama is a stunning accomplishment, a reminder of the type of sweeping location films we rarely see. For those unfamiliar with Gertrude Bell and her experiences in the early 1900’s, Queen of the Desert will be an enjoyable learning experience. It’s a great time to be a Kidman fan, following her rave reviews for limited TV series Big Little Lies and coming off last years’ Oscar nomination for Lion. The Oscar winner was born to be an actress, she is an icon here and everywhere we find her name, regardless of the film’s success. One of the most impressive feats here is making the 49-year-old star look a believable late 20 something Bell.
“Dear God, send me an earthquake,” Gertrude Bell (Kidman) asks while fending off dull suitors at one of her parents many English estate parties. After completing Oxford, Gertrude was inspired to travel. Her first trip would be to Tehran, Persia in 1892. It was the beginning of what would become an everlasting thirst for travel, knowledge and in the end an influencer and ambassador to the Arab nations. First, the impressionable Englishwoman met Henry Cadogan (Franco) falling deeply in love, despite her father’s refusal to accept their relationship. “My heart belongs to no one now but the desert.” Refused travel through the Middle East during WWI, she went anyway, eventually being approached to spy for British Intelligence.
It’s hard to fault any film that can provide both entertainment and education.
What begins as a romance quickly changes after Franco (127 Hours) departs the screen. The unlikely pairing of Kidman and Franco works quite well in their brief time together. We see Bell become a force of nature, standing up to male bureaucrats and soldiers standing in her path. She isn’t armed with weapons, only intrigue and a camera, photographing the people she meets. Herzog’s documentary style eye is evident here as he strings together the narrative with information and drama. There is no urgency to his direction or screenplay, yet I never found Queen of the Desert boring as it covers so much material in Bell’s daring expeditions. Kidman deserves most of the films praise as she inhabits this character completely, often compelling Herzog to shoot scenes not in his script to authenticate Bell’s experience.
Pattinson (both here and in similar discovery film The Lost City of Z) has a fleeting presence as “Lawrence of Arabia”. Of all the men she flirts and encounters, their pairing is the least interesting. It’s hard to fault any film that can provide both entertainment and education. Queen of the Desert falls into brief lulls that the editing always pulls out of as Bell never stays anywhere for long. There are gun battles, near death experiences, but perseverance is where the true action lies. “A perfect nightmare of flowers and scents,” she called it. Herzog consistently uses photographs from Bell’s experiences throughout the film to reassure the viewer what they are seeing is based on fact. In the hands of a different writer and director, this film could have been something more grand for mainstream audiences. As it stands now Queen of the Desert is an old fashioned, visionary feast for those willing to take the journey.
Kidman playing a historical groundbreaking female figure in the vast uncharted desert, how can you really say no.