© Prokino (Fox)

Königin der Wüste (Queen of the Desert)
U.S.A. 2015

Opening 3 Sep 2015

Directed by: Werner Herzog
Writing credits: Werner Herzog
Principal actors: Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Damian Lewis, Robert Pattinson, Jay Abdo

Wikipedia tells us that Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was known for the “Foundation of Jordan and Iraq. Writer, traveler, political officer, archaeologist, explorer, cartographer in Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Arabia.” And what have you been up to lately?

Werner Herzog and Nicole Kidman have been busy making a splendorous and wind-swept film about Bell, whose Arab friends and colleagues called her Queen of the Desert. (This new film is not to be confused, please, with the 1994 Australian movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, about drag queens in the Outback.) Herzog’s lovely but flawed film recounts how Gertrude sprang the parameters of her aristocratic Victorian upbringing and ascended to the top echelon of kingmakers through her keen intellect and breathtaking daring. 

Fresh from gaining top honors in history at Oxford, Gertrude (Kidman) is determined to pursue her dreams of traveling and making a difference in the world. With not too much difficulty, she persuades her beloved father of her need to take a foreign journey, and he allows her to visit her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, the British minister in Teheran. Thrilled by the wafting perfumes and intoxicating mysteries of the Orient, Gertrude undertakes to study the Persian language and immerse herself in the culture. 

A kindred spirit appears from behind the silken brocades in the form of James Franco, poorly cast as British legation secretary Hon. Henry Cadogan. Henry and Gertrude bond over their love of Persian poetry, and soon become engaged. But when Gertrude’s family disapproves, she reluctantly yet obediently travels back to England. After Henry dies in mysterious circumstances, the heartbroken Gertrude heads once again to the Middle East. The desert calls. 

As Gertrude embarks by her determined self with a trusted guide (Jay Abdo) in a caravan to crisscross the desert, British officers at various outposts attempt to use her knowledge of Arab relations to their political advantage. Among the personalities Gertrude encounters in her wanderings is T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson, jarring in Arab headdress), who similarly undertakes to live amongst and understand the various tribes. One of her staunch supporters is Maj. Charles Doughty-Wylie, an unhappily married man played by the elegant Damian Lewis. He and Gertrude fall in love, but the World War calls him off. Soon she is left alone again in the savage wilderness, where she feels most at home.

All this romance is atypical of Werner Herzog, who has been accused of making a crowd-pleasing costume drama. Still, there’s nothing wrong with pleasing a crowd, and the costumes are sumptuous. Some of Herzog’s earlier preoccupations are evident in the subject matter of Queen of the Desert: an intense, driven personality travels to the great unknown, testing the boundaries of existence. It’s unusual for him to make a film with a strong female character, but then Gertrude Bell was an unusual strong female. Nicole Kidman is spunky and smart in the role of trail-blazing Gertrude, though not quite believable as a hard-bitten adventurer. Less tragic love and more of Bell’s later accomplishments would have made for a fuller portrait of this fascinating personality who was, among many other things, the first woman officer in British military intelligence, a nation-builder, and the Director of Antiquities for the new nation of Iraq. A hundred years on, the world could use another keen interpreter of the intricacies of Middle Eastern relations such as Gertrude Bell.(Brenda Benthien) (Brenda Benthien)

Second Opinion

Gertrude Bell was a powerful personage as the twentieth century dawned. A writer, traveler, cartographer, explorer, mountain climber, archeologist, and both intelligence officer and political attaché for the British Empire, any biopic telling her whole story would require hours. Instead, writer–director Werner Herzog concentrates on the men, and places that most touched Gertrude’s heart. The outspoken daughter of a wealthy industrialist, when still not betrothed three years after her debut into Victorian society Gertrude (Kidman) turns to traveling. Arriving in Tehran where her uncle is a British envoy in 1892, she meets Henry Cadogan (Franco). Carefree golden days together liberate her heart to the man, and the exotic East. The unimaginable happens; when Gertrude returns from England she explores the desert region much to the chagrin of many. Under different conditions, she shares romantic friendliness with another diplomat (Lewis). The more experiences she collects, the more worldly encumbrances she sheds. Both poetic and enigmatic, she inspires Bedouin tribes, and noteworthy game players such as T.E. Lawrence (a miscast Pattinson), Winston Churchill (Christopher Fulford), emirs, sheiks, muktars, et al. carving out her place in history.

Space is given and time taken as Herzog familiarizes the nomads and colonized, and the raw beauty, harsh conditions, and grandeur of desert life. Atypical for Herzog—a female lead, more obvious dissimilarity in relation to culture–nature and cultural anomalies—his accuracy is in ascribing the individualist’s temerity. Kidman aptly portrays Bell’s contradictions: shrewdly analytical, compassionate, scientific and precise, artistic and sensitive. And yes, Bell’s vigor surpassed most men’s yet she was petite, feminine and quixotic. Franco is good although not on screen long enough in proportion to Cadogan’s importance, and Lewis fulfills persuasively as does most of the cast. Some scenes seem disingenuous – cousin Flo in Tehran, a bumbling Churchill, Gertrude’s transitive time in England, while others ensconce – Gertrude’s guide Fattuh, walking out on an emir, meeting a sheik.

Constituting impeccable production values are Peter Zeitlinger’s richly grandiose cinematography, Klaus Badelt’s encompassing, soulful music, and Joe Bini editing, Ulrich Bergfelder production design, Rabiaa N’Gadi and Caroline Steiner art direction, Michele Clapton costume design, et al. Before climbing aboard the dromedary, to better understand the magnitude of Herzog’s challenge you might want to check out Gertrude Bell in the Internet. Even though too many critics propensity have been negative dismissal, open yourself to Herzog’s novel direction. Travel at a camel’s pace through a particular point in history from the unlikely vantage point of a woman dominating male arenas. For anyone without firsthand knowledge, this is as close to being in a desert as it gets – the only thing missing is the intensely dry heat. (Marinell Haegelin)

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