Queen of the Desert

Scott Wallace
31st May 2016

Queen of the Desert is the latest from acclaimed German filmmaker Werner Herzog. Known to contemporary audiences for his documentary work, particularly the iconic Grizzly Man, Queen of the Desert instead recalls his groundbreaking work from the '70s and '80s in which he pits person against place; in this case famed British explorer Gertrude Bell and the expansive desert of the Middle East.

When the film begins in the early 1900s, Bell (Nicole Kidman) is one of only four female graduates from Oxford, and yet as an unmarried but impetuous and stubbornly independent woman, she is a headache for her parents. She seeks adventure, and her wish is granted when she is sent to Tehran to live at the British Embassy with her uncle and aunt. From there begins a lifelong affair with not only the troubled Henry Cadogan (James Franco), but also the desert itself.

Unlike many period dramas, Herzog brings his distinctive rawness to the proceedings. His camera is almost intrusive and unquenchably curious in the film's more intimate moments, and then when presented with the vast majesty of the desert it adopts a kind of cowed stoicism, inducing awe in the audience. As per Herzog's demanding nature, it was filmed on location in Morocco and Jordan. There is real, distinctive magic in the way the film presents certain unvarnished images like sand skittering across the desert in high winds, or thirsty camels eagerly gulping down water.

Queen of the Desert is a very slow moving film. To be effective, arguably a film with this kind of rhythm needs a strong sense of tension or conflict, or a clearly defined end goal; a perfect example of this Herzog's own Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) or Fitzcarraldo (1982). Unfortunately, Queen of the Desert has none of those things, and the audience can't get properly invested in Bell's mission which simply changes apparently on a whim. Her relation to the Middle East and its people never has a breakthrough moment, and as a result there is an odd, colonialist mindset that permeates the film.

Kidman's performance is serviceable in the lead role, but it appears greater than it perhaps is because the cast as a whole is somewhat uninspired. James Franco is unbearably wooden, and many of his lines that should be tender are rendered funny by his strange delivery and implacable accent. The only standout in the cast is Robert Pattinson as T.E. Lawrence, who miraculously doesn't simply ape Peter O'Toole's performance in Lawrence of Arabia, but invests the character with an endearingly nervous energy that makes the most of what little screen time he has.

Overall, Queen of the Desert isn't a disaster, but it never draws you in to the admittedly intriguing story of Bell. We're repeatedly told how captivating she is throughout the movie, but we never see it for ourselves. There are a few moments - tiny sparks - of brilliance scattered throughout, but they can't add momentum or depth where they are missing.

Queen of the Desert opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday June 2nd.