Don’t assume Priscilla – there’s no drag queens in this desert, just a glamorous but underwhelming blunder of a biopic.
⭐ ⭐ ½
It’s the dawn of the Twentieth Century, and Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman), stifled by the confines of her mansion in England, is granted permission by her father to travel to Tehran in the Middle East. Accommodated in the British Embassy, she’s quick to fall head over heels for her guide and secretary Henry Cadogan (James Franco), who promptly proposes to her. Tragedy befalls the pair when Gertrude returns home. Dispirited and lost, she eventually goes back to the Middle Eastern desert for many years, forming bonds with prolific figures like Lt. Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) and T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson), eventually helping establish the political state of modern Iraq.
Legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog, the man who brought the Wrath of God in Aguirre and pulled a 30 tonne steamship over a hill in Fitzcarraldo, delivers perhaps his most unexpected effort yet with Queen of the Desert – an inoffensive, straightforward and (it must be said) disappointingly routine biopic. Gertrude Bell’s astounding legacy and influence as a political officer, writer, archaeologist and British spy is done a severe disservice by a script that becomes increasingly muddled.
Things kick off well enough; once Gertrude is airdropped into the Middle East we’re suckered into her alluring love affair against a magnificent foreign backdrop. Franco barely stretches himself as her suitor (in fact he seems a bit fatigued), but he charms effortlessly, and there’s an air of summer romance that boosts their chemistry.
However, once Henry departs, and Gertrude sets out on her camel into the endless Saharan sea, the pace slows to a snail’s crawl. Events roll in repetitively and episodically: Gertrude roams the desert for a bit. Gertrude meets a sheikh and soaks in the Arabian culture. Gertrude runs into someone who might aid her quest, or someone who might hinder it. Rinse and repeat. The many conversations Gertrude has with the locals – which we’re told were substantial in pioneering the Middle East into a powerful nation and forming their imperial relationship with Britain – are flat and lifeless. At times it feels as though Herzog is crafting an Arabian tourist advertisement; he loses the story in the desert, misplacing a sense of consistency, purpose and direction.
Despite all this it’s not a total misfire; there are a handful of near-saving graces worth mentioning. After a string of duds the past few years, (from Grace of Monaco to Secret in Their Eyes) Nicole Kidman delivers a significantly better performance. Looking strikingly youthful, Kidman does her best with a difficult role. Robert Pattinson is welcomely amusing as T.E. Lawrence too, though is completely underutilised. Unfortunately, his presence draws tragic comparisons to Lawrence of Arabia, which most audience members will eventually wish they were watching instead.
Herzog’s eye for aesthetic is hugely elevating too; shots of the long stretching scenery are breathtaking to behold, and a powerful score perfectly sets an atmosphere the film no doubt wishes it could match on any other level. Devoid of conflict but difficult to hate, Queen of the Desert is beautifully dull, and – ironically – epitomised in one word: dry.
Queen of the Desert is available in Australian cinemas from June 2nd
Image courtesy of Transmission Films