Gertrude Bell’s life story deserves the royal treatment. Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert is not it.
Let’s put Gertrude Bell in some historical perspective. At one point, back in the 1920s, she was even more famous than her legendary colleague Thomas Edward Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia). In some circles, she was lionized as the greatest woman of all time. In other words, in today’s sadly superficial society, today’s “Queen B,” Beyonce, wouldn’t hold a candle (or a telephone or anything else) in comparison to the awesome accomplishments of Gertrude Bell.
Gertrude was an Oxford graduate, a rarity for a woman back in those days. Mischievous. Adventurous. Physical. Traveler. Archaeologist. Anthropologist. Cartographer. Writer. Photographer. It’s fitting that one of Bell’s biographies carries the lofty title, “Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations.”
Gertrude Bell’s life is the stuff of which movies are made. She lived the kind of life most can only dream about at night. As T.E. Lawrence once wrote, “All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.”
Substitute “women” for “men” and let the comparisons between Bell and Lawrence begin. They both played a major role in geopolitics as World War I exploded. Lawrence was famously betrayed by the Sykes-Picot treaty, and Mark Sykes plays a role here. Lawrence and Bell were photographed with Winston Churchill in front of the Sphinx in Giza.
Both worked on the ground, building relationships within the tribes of the Middle East. Both were sincere in their endeavors to understand the people — the Bedouins, Persians and others. Both came to learn of the dangers of their sincerity.
It’s timely stuff. Even more so now, with Syria once again making headlines for new tragedies that ultimately have their roots back in 1919.
Bell of Persia
At its best, Queen of the Desert is nothing more than a major disappointment. It’s a low-budget endeavor only now encountering the light of the projector, despite carrying a copyright of 2014.
And it’s a sloppy effort, at times embarrassing in its amateurish attributes. The opening title cards refer to the “Arabic Revolt” rather than the “Arab Revolt.” There’s also a remarkably sloppy bit of editing during a quiet, special moment of conversation between Gertrude and the love of her life, Henry Cadogan (a miscast James Franco, 127 Hours, whose British accent comes and goes from scene to scene).
Sure. Things happen. No movie is truly perfect. But this one comes from Werner Herzog, something of a legend in his own right. Herzog’s made some remarkable movies, including Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, Herzog’s also made documentaries, Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams among them.
Herzog knows how to tell stories. And he should know better than to focus on all the wrong things, particularly given the remarkable story simply waiting to be filmed; two biographies (both by female authors) were released almost concurrently in 2010. Gertrude Bell’s life of adventure is well documented, including her own published letters. But Herzog takes sole writing credit for the screenplay. And he blows it.
Bell of the Ball
This impenetrable, detached and passionless attempt at bringing Gertrude’s story to the masses wastes too much time on the romantic overtures of her male suitors. At one point, one such suitor, Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis, BBC’s Wolf Hall), says, “I would rather put a bullet in my head than live without you.” A more passionless, dry and unconvincing delivery of those words is unimaginable.
Somewhere out there is a longer cut, featuring an additional 16 minutes. Maybe within those cut minutes is the movie’s soul.
Nicole Kidman (Lion) can’t be held wholly responsible for the extremely misguided characterization presented in Queen of the Desert. Given the right screenplay, she would’ve been a great choice. But as presented here, there’s precious little to reveal Gertrude’s drive and the meaty stuff — as borders are redrawn by the British, French and Russians — is left for the end, with only a distant inkling of why Gertrude played such a significant role.
In Queen of the Desert, she’s merely a headstrong wanderer with a bit of an ego. Her mother warns her to not display her intelligence at a social gathering so as not to scare off the men. Fine. That’s fair bit of social commentary from the day, but that’s pretty much the level where Herzog continues to linger throughout the movie. It’s so very sad this movie went so shallow.
One bright spot is Robert Pattinson’s take on Lawrence of Arabia. Pattinson, the high-profile sensation of The Twilight Saga a few years ago, has followed Kristen Stewart’s career path by focusing on the artsy rather than the blockbuster. Here, he captures the intelligent — and off-putting — demeanor of Lawrence that serves as a nice cinematic companion to the glossy, Hollywood-pleasing Peter O’Toole version.
But that’s not nearly enough to make Queen of the Desert worthy of an audience.