If you’re a fan of ’80s Oscar bait who wonders why they don’t make ’em like that any more, then grab a tub of popcorn and settle in to enjoy Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert. A historical epic that never makes any sudden moves, it’s a movie that explores the Middle East circa World War I with elaborate reverence — as seen through the eyes of a porcelain-skinned British woman.
The woman is Gertrude “Don’t Call Me Priscilla” Bell (Nicole Kidman), who helped Winston Churchill (Christopher Fulford) draw national boundaries in the Arab world after the Great War. We learn this immediately, from the first batch of explanatory text that makes sure we don’t miss a single didactic detail — and also frames the importance of a feminist icon in terms of her importance to a powerful man.
Kidman plays Bell from age 30 to age 53, but she looks exactly the same throughout: faintly glowing, unlined and untroubled. Herzog, who both wrote and directed, would have us believe that the trick that allowed Bell to earn the respect of a wide range of disparate leaders was to appear eerily composed at all times. She drifts across the Arab Peninsula, suspicious armies parting before her like the Red Sea before Moses. (Herzog does not omit the red line running across a map to track her caravan’s progress.)
Bell was a remarkable woman who deserves to be more widely known — although, the closing text is quick to assure us, she’s already “an inspiration for pioneering and influential women the world over.” Instead of trying to capture her entire epic journey through the Middle East, what if Herzog had just zeroed in on a single encounter with an Arab leader? Then, he might have had time to flesh out the subtleties of the situation and the nuances of the people involved. As is, he’s just created a film that shows us Poole repeatedly charming the pants off of everyone she meets. That Bell! She’s so damn pioneering, nothing can stop her.
You might recall that there’s already another fairly well-known movie about an influential Brit who was hanging in those environs around this time, and that film’s hero makes a Queen of the Desert appearance in the person of Robert Pattinson — who makes T.E. Lawrence a mildly impish bro for Bell to get drunk around the campfire with, and with whom to exchange dry observations about the jackass politicians leading the world into its most epically pointless war.
Pattinson is more fun to watch than either of Bell’s love interests, which isn’t saying much. Her latter-year love gets the shorter end of the stick: Damian Lewis, utterly uncharismatic as a military officer, somehow succeeds in finally inducing Bell to forget her forbidden liaison with a middling diplomat. That character is underplayed, with what must have taken strenuous effort, by James Franco. He’s not too interesting either, but at least there’s a measure of suspense in listening to see when Franco will stop bothering to even try with the British accent.
Are there some gorgeous shots? Sure. Werner Herzog isn’t going to go into the desert and come back totally empty-handed. The story is so clunky and bland, though, that the scenes of windswept sand and glacier-like salt crusts feel perfunctory. We understand why Bell slips into the Middle East like an old shoe: it feels comfortable and familiar to us too, even (maybe especially) to those of us who’ve never actually been there but have seen a million movies about squinting Bedouins and belching camels.
Queen of the Desert arrives in U.S. cinemas with some baggage; much more than its efficient central character tends to travel with. After extensive delays in shooting, the film finally premiered in Europe in 2015, and there’s a reason it’s taken so long to come to America. Reviews have been awful: Rotten Tomatoes has it only 9% fresh, two points below the movie where Kevin Spacey gets trapped inside the body of a cat.
(If you’re reading this and wondering why I even bothered to watch it under those circumstances, let me just point out that Vanilla Sky is one of my favorite movies. I think for myself, okay?)
Herzog has made some of the great films about heroic follies: Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man. Here, he goes for just straight-ahead heroism, and it’s much less plausible. Certainly, too, much less interesting. After crafting such searing expeditions into uncharted territory, Herzog seems to have either lost his nerve or determined (probably correctly) that he’s just not the guy to bring us into the Middle East. As biopics go, Gertrude Bell deserved better.