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Queen of the Desert

Nicole Kidman, James Franco and Robert Pattinson can't salvage this disappointing historical drama.
By Sarah Ward
June 03, 2016
By Sarah Ward
June 03, 2016

At the heart of Queen of the Desert sits Gertrude Bell, a real life historic figure who was anything but ordinary. A writer, photographer, traveller and more, Bell bucked traditional gender roles, blazed a trail for women working in international politics, and ultimately played a key part in establishing the modern borders of Iraq and Jordan in the years following WWI. Sadly, while the film that tells her tale doesn't ignore those achievements completely, its primary concern instead seems to be her love life.

That's how an account of Bell (Nicole Kidman) and her time in the Middle East becomes an episodic effort tied to the men she fell for and worked with. After begging her aristocratic father to send her anywhere outside of England, she is dispatched to Tehran to stay with her diplomat uncle (Mark Lewis Jones), and swiftly succumbs to the charms of embassy secretary Henry Cadogan (James Franco). When their courtship ends, Bell takes to the desert, forming a platonic bond with T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson). And largely via letters, she also connects with Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis), a married British consul stationed in Damascus.

Writing and directing his first fiction feature since 2009's My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, Werner Herzog wants to have his cake and eat it too. He obviously intends to depict Bell as a fiercely independent woman, and yet he can't resist indulging in overwrought relationship melodrama. While such a contradiction might reflect life (and suit Herzog's fascination with existential contrasts, as seen in his other films such as Rescue Dawn and Grizzly Man), Queen of the Desert just can't seem to strike the right balance between empowered adventure and lovelorn longing.

Instead, the film becomes a sweeping but standard epic, hoping to blend the emotion of The English Patient and the spectacle of Lawrence of Arabia, and ultimately proving as formulaic as that sounds. At least the latter inspiration provides striking, sun-drenched imagery, with the film at its best when it's charting a lush visual excursion across the plains. As for its worst — well, that's where the performances come in.

In the cast's defence, there's a big difference between bad acting and portrayals that are stifled by bad material. Kidman, Franco and Pattinson are all serviceable, but simply aren't given the room they need to turn thinly drawn characters into something more. Kidman certainly tries in one of her most committed efforts in recent years, yet as she flits between yearning and determined, the true spirit of Bell never shines through. Accordingly, Queen of the Desert feels more like routine historical romantic fodder rather than a genuine biopic. Given the woman at its centre, that's hardly a satisfying outcome.

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