Berlin 2015: ‘Queen of the Desert’ review


Revered Bavarian director Werner Herzog strains to marry his eccentric directorial style with the period epic in this rather stolid and strangely formal romance starring Australian actress Nicole Kidman as British explorer-cum-spy Gertrude Bell. Queen of the Desert (2015), which premièred in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival, sounds the perfect project for Herzog: Bell was a famous eccentric who travelled to uncharted places and met curious characters. She was most famous as a woman’s answer to Lawrence of Arabia (a man we’ll encounter later) and was credited with drawing the map for much of the Middle East and settling the dynasties of modern-day Jordan and Iraq.

Herzog appears to care less for Bell’s ambition and more in Bell’s romantic entanglements, plummeting the film into a war romance that becomes banal and offers little but a travelogue of Arabia’s vast, but rather samey, landscapes. In the late-1800s, Oxford-educated Bell, fed up of Victorian Britain and its social institutions, agrees to live at the British Embassy in Tehran (then in Persia) with her cousin. Kidman arrives on screen fully-formed with an exuberant spirit, taking the character for a further twenty years of her life. But she’s just a touch shy of the presence required of such a figure. It’s not her fault that this film will find itself linked with other recent festival flops. It’s more Herzog’s mawkish script, teed-up with cringe-inducing awkwardness when Bell meets James Franco’s pretty English diplomat Henry Cadogan.

Alas, tragedy ensues and Franco’s presence, and his sort-of-English accent, is seen only for the first act (a performance that therefore seems entirely pointless). His replacement comes in the form of Damian Lewis’ moustached Charles Doughty-Wylie, a British army major who almost alone sees a twinkle of the woman she would become. And despite the emphasis Herzog insists on their relationship, all they share are letters and a kiss. Another man who sees her promise is T.E. Lawrence, who’s played, is seems to everyone’s general astonishment, by Robert Pattinson. Pattinson isn’t bad as Lawrence – he has a public school affability that eventually wins over – but the unintended consequence is that the film inevitably compares to David Lean’s magnum opus.

Queen of the Desert has the note of a travelogue about it – that is to say, it feels well-travelled, but not well-lived. Places come and go, Kidman meets and greets various sheiks, none of whom resonate beyond their slot in the story. Still, Herzog makes a rather amusing case for the mere daftness of the British enterprise in Arabia, consciously or unconsciously nodding to the British Empire’s responsibility for conflicts now engulfing the region. Around a table surrounded by Churchill and other war leaders, one military man epitomises this witlessness when he calls Bell a “globe-trotting, rump-waggling, blathering ass”. It’s a pity that we’re never given even a glimpse of that.

The 65th Berlin Film Festival takes place from 5-15 February 2015. For more of our coverage, simply follow this link.

Ed Frankl | @Ed_Frankl