Unlike most purveyors of based-on-a-true-story biopics, Werner Herzog didn’t wait until the closing crawl to reveal a snapshot of his real life Queen of the Desert. Even before the opening credits announce that the part will be played by Nicole Kidman, a photograph of Gertrude Bell appears onscreen. It’s one of the few deviations in what can only be described as a bland departure from the director’s normally madcap norm.
The film, which has been sitting on a shelf since 2015, is Herzog’s first narrative feature since 2009’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. If memory serves, it’s also the director’s first story to unfold from a woman’s point-of-view. The timing couldn’t be better. Gertrude Bell joins trailblazers Ruth Williams (A United Kingdom) and Hidden Figures’ trio of out of-this-world rocket scientists Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson as yet another pioneering woman our grade school teachers and history books forgot to mention.
A résumé as long as Bell’s burnoose boasted time spent as writer, archaeologist, photographer, world traveller (with an emphasis on Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Arabia), explorer, administrator, and spy.
Her study of DaVinci furnished Bell with an abiding motto: everyone needs a parachute. Bell’s mother (long time, no see Jenny Agutter) warned her young daughter against pouring on the smarts in fear of warding off potential suitors. Meanwhile, Father Bell discouraged a union with lady-killer Henry Cadogan (James Franco, whose wavering accent and underwritten character will find audiences cheering on Dad’s decision). The desert proved to be her escape hatch: first stop Persia and its 5000 years of poetry. With natural curiosity to guide her, there was no need for maps.
Queen of the Desert trailer
She was a contemporary of T. E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) and struck out on a pair of ill-fated romances. This string of males left a great impression on her life, but Bell was one Florence of Arabia whose heart belonged to the desert. (According to the closing crawl, Bell’s knowledge and contacts wielded influence. She worked closely with Winston Churchill in drawing the borders of what is today Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Jordan.) And Bell’s affair with married soldier Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) reveals a side of Herzog that can best be described as the merchant of Merchant and Ivory. Is this the same Herzog who directed Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Grizzly Man?
Herzog’s desert paradise has no time or age. The deeper Bell’s travels take her, the more dreamlike her journey becomes, and it’s only during these passages that the film shows signs of life. Momentarily abandoning Bell at the bottom of a gorge — it’s one of the few instances when Kidman isn’t onscreen — Herzog’s camera rapidly scales the giant abyss, and for a brief moment we might be witnessing an outtake from the director’s one and only foray 3D excursion, Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
(Herzog could be the only director to shoot in 3D before Panavision. Queen of the Desert marks the first time in a career spanning a combined 70 or so features, shorts, and documentaries that the director strapped an anamorphic lens to the turret. All things considered, the results are less than spectacular. Bell’s first kiss, composed center frame and followed by an elaborate pullback, is just one example of his conventional deployment of the ratio.)
On paper, impassioned archaeologist Herzog and an eloquent wanderer like Bell make for cinematic soulmates. But instead of drawing more attention to her accomplishments, Herzog moves in the direction of David Lean pictorialism. And there are moments that touch upon Lean’s coffee table-movie splendor, most notably Herzog’s risky decision to film in mid-sandstorm. And while it’s understandable why Kidman and Herzog wanted to work together, their softer sides and personal quirks never mesh. When the Sheik informs Bell that she was summoned to a meeting, she laughs and barks, “No one summons me!” Kidman’s comeback strikes a perfect chord of contemptuous disdain, but when it comes to romance, there’s something lacking: she fails to raise any pulse rates with her three paramours.
Here’s a game I like to play in cases where a revered director fires a rare blank: let’s pretend that the identity of the filmmaker had been kept a secret going in. The house lights go up and quizmaster Anthony Anderson steps in, asking me to partake in a round of “Name That Director.” Herzog's name wouldn’t have cracked the top 20.