It's superficial and undercooked, and hardly Herzogian by the standards of its writer and director--Werner Herzog. Still, I enjoyed the rousing parts of QUEEN OF THE DESERT, a feminist epic adventure/romance. This biopic's subject is the fearless Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman). Defying the gender norms of her time, she was an adventurer, writer, archeaologist, and photographer traveling throughout the deserts of Arabia and Mesopotamia in the years before WWI, earning the respect and friendship of the tribal peoples in the twilight of the Ottoman Empire. She lived a life writ movie-large, meeting T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) at his Petra excavation and experiencing great and tragic loves with British officers (James Franco, Damian Lewis). Speaking Arabic fluently, she knew certain regions better than any westerner, and the locals called her the "Lady of the Desert." After the war, she played a key role in the British government's forging of the modern Middle East. Along with Lawrence, she was part of the Cairo talks that created the first King of Iraq, King Faisal (Younes El Bouab). The movie has her as an anti-imperialist who believed staunchly in Arab self-determination.
You'd think this material would make great grist for Herzog. Indeed, on the level of content, this is certainly of a piece with Herzog's themes and obsessions. Gertrude Bell is a worthy feminist addition to the pantheon of Herzogian heroes--the questers, the visionaries. Kidman embodies her well, with a touching dignity. There's a great moment when she comes up over a rise, betting her life she'll be well-received by the tribe below. You can see why she became a legend.
The idea seems to have been to make an unabashed, old-fashioned Hollywood adventure/romance. We might note that writing passionate romance is not exactly Herzog's métier; his flat script stays on the page, and on the surface. It's on the level of form, though, that this really is lacking in Herzog's personal, visionary, poetic style. He captures the sweep of desert vistas well, but for the most part this movie could have been directed by anyone. Yet it moves along fairly well. As an indulgence in soaring melodrama and romantic mythmaking, QUEEN OF THE DESERT is thin but absorbing, and at times even exhilarating. Still, when's the last time we could say of a Herzog film that virtually every scene feels like something we've seen before?
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)