Werner Herzog‘s world premiere of “Queen Of The Desert” was met with some criticism at the Berlin Film Festival in February, yet it was nominated for a Golden Bear. So I attended this screening with particular interest to see the work of this auteur and master director and writer. The film was given a special evening screening at the Dolby Theatre for AFI FEST, with a great deal of anticipation amongst movie enthusiasts. It was very well attended, with nearly all of the seats filled for the North American premiere of Queen Of The Desert. The film was introduced by Werner, himself, to a very attentive crowd.
It was clear from the very opening of the credits that the scope of the film was to be epic in scale, as the score rolled on and the images flickered across the enormous Dolby Theatre screen. Nicole Kidman playing Gertrude Bell is a young, scholarly woman who has attended and graduated from Queen’s College in London, and then later from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University. It becomes obvious that with this educational background she was constricted by the social architecture of upper class Victorian England with untenable and limited options for marriage. Werner’s narrative uses this as a key element motivating her to petition her parents to allow her to leave England and find adventure for herself.
Gertrude leaves the comfort and constrictions of England to find a new life in Tehran, Persia, now known as Iran, staying with her uncle Sir Frank Lascelles, who was British minister. There she finds her intellectual equal in Henry Cadogan, played by James Franco, who has a fascination for archeology and Persian poetry. He is her kindred spirit, and a romance flairs with heat and passion, eventually to ill effect. The body of the story after their romance ends with the abrupt and inexplicable death of James Franco’s character, Henry Cadogen, sends Gertrude out on various expeditions across the Middle East in her quest to map the area, to educate herself in the local culture and language of the Bedouins, including occasionally spying on the various bedouin tribes throughout the region.
These tribes are by no means culturally homogeneous, and were generally at war with one another, making them considerable mystery to the British Empire. During these adventures, Gertrude finds a benefactor, and eventually a suitor in Charles Doughty-Wylie, played by Damian Lewis. During her adventure she became friendly with T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) played by Robert Pattinson. This meeting of Gertrude and Lawrence was set in the city of Petra, solidifying these characters in a recognizable part of the Middle East that Westerners are familiar with.
There were moments when the Queen Of The Desert soundtrack would swell with its orchestration, and it seemed to reference Lawrence of Arabia in its sense of grandeur and style. Those musical movements were actually a bit of a distraction. The movie is entertaining, and it offers an interesting view of an amazing woman in a pivotal part of world history, but Queen Of The Desert doesn’t carry the same cinematic weight as the story of Lawrence of Arabia or the performances by Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif.
Queen Of The Desert examines the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, and reveals how the Middle East came together as it is today, from the heroine’s point of view. The movie spends a smattering of time on Winston Churchill making policy regarding the Middle East, guided by T. E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell’s knowledge and understanding of the bedouin tribes and culture, but it never fully fleshed out his character because the focus of the story was targeted on Gertrude’s adventures.
The film’s primary focus is on the earlier part of Gertrude’s life and adventures, and her unhappy love life as it culminates with the death of her lover, Charles Doughty-Wylie, at the end of World War I. The movie has been met with some stiff criticism. It’s my opinion that Geoffrey Macnab nails it in The Independent when he states, “This is the closest Herzog has come to making a conventional Hollywood movie – what it lacks is the perversity, drive and wildness that are usually his hallmark.” Queen Of The Desert echoes the sensibilities of an expansive costumed dramas that, we, as Americans are familiar with, and tend to enjoy. These criticisms about Queen Of The Desert state that is it isn’t messed up enough for a Herzog effort, yet it’s not a major studio epic and classic like Lawrence of Arabia. There are few films that can do both, let alone one of these choices well.
The movie still holds its own for story telling and for positioning a woman, especially one as history-making and with such heroic stature as Gertrude Bell in a major movie release. Nicole Kidman’s Gertrude is a compelling heroic female figure that deals with life on her own terms. Whether breaking out of a stifling Victorian world or finding a place within the wilds of nomadic Bedouin tribes and Arabic culture, she remains the master of her own destiny. Queen Of The Desert is an epic of considerable scope and in an exceptionally interesting period in time that is often overlooked in American history. Herzog seems to capture the zeitgeist of the period and the making of a heroine in a time when few women ventured beyond their homes.
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