The filmography of Werner Herzog, fiction and nonfiction alike, are populated with dreamers. Sometimes these dreamers are doomed, their lofty ambition far exceeding their reach. Other times, these are dreamers that overcome obstacles and achieve the impossible. With Queen of the Desert, Herzog chronicles the life of another dreamer – Gertrude Bell, an English woman who was greatly influential in the Middle East following the end of the Ottoman Empire. Sadly, Queen of the Desert isn’t Herzog at his best. The legendary German director is never able to find the right balance between the romantic melodrama and the sweeping historical drama making Queen of the Desert one of his weaker efforts.
The film opens with a young Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman) as a young debutante in Victorian England. Gertrude shuns the attempts of male suitors to earn her hand in marriage, much to the chagrin of her father Hugh (David Calder). After much pleading, Gertrude harangues her father into getting her a post at the British Embassy in Tehran. It is Tehran that Gertrude meets a man that is capable of earning her affections in the embassy’s undersecretary Henry Cadogan (a woefully miscast James Franco). When Henry suddenly dies from causes unknown, a heartbroken Gertrude dives into her studies of the various tribes and lands of the Middle East. Along her travels, Gertrude runs into T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) at the archeological excavations at Petra. Between travels, Gertrude earns the affections of Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis), a married British officer, though at first she resists before finding herself equally infatuated with him. Across the region, Gertrude Bell cultivates a reputation that has her called the “Lady of the Desert,” able to earn the respect and trust of tribal leaders throughout the region.
Queen of the Desert is very much Herzog’s take on Lawrence of Arabia. Its wide shots of the dunes of the desert, sand whisking in the wind, with a musical score that is itself very reminiscent of David Lean’s masterpiece. And, of course, having T.E. Lawrence as a character only reinforces those similarities. But Herzog hasn’t crafted an epic for the ages. Queen of the Desert has its great share of faults that overshadow some of the more interesting aspects that Herzog has within the film.
The biggest flaw of the film is in its pacing. Herzog spends far too long on establishing the doomed romance between Henry Cadogan and Gertrude Bell that will serve as the spark for Bell’s passion in the region. The scenes prevent the film from starting out with a real sense of forward momentum and it’s made all the worse by the unintentionally hilarious performance by James Franco, who is funnier here than he was in all of The Interview. But miscasting is rampant in Queen of the Desert. Robert Pattinson isn’t as embarrassing as Franco, but he never comes close to making his T.E. Lawrence the fascinating character on screen that he is the annals of history. As the film’s star, Nicole Kidman is even out of place as Gertrude Bell, especially in the early scenes when she’s supposed to be a debutante in her 20s. The role is another in a long line of underwhelming would-be prestige pictures for Kidman.
Werner Herzog spends too much time focusing on the melodrama of Gertrude Bell’s story instead of the fiery spirit that led her to become one of the West’s few icons in the Middle East. The legendary director moves away from his strengths in chronicling a dreamer chasing their passion despite the objections of their surroundings and makes a movie that uses lost love as the instigator. From a visual angle, Queen of the Desert is very much a Werner Herzog film, sometimes disorienting with its swooping camera movements and wide angle lenses. Like David Lean’s classic, Herzog is adept at conveying the sheer magnitude of the desert, framing the people as almost insignificant in relation to the expansive terrain. Most of all, Queen of the Desert is a minor Herzog film, one that only captures some of the mad spirit that has made him a legend in the film world. Many people will not be moved by the melodramatic history of Queen of the Desert, and the film is only out there for Herzog completists.