Film Review: Queen of the Desert (dir by Werner Herzog)


Last night, I finally saw the latest Werner Herzog film to be released in the United States, Queen of the Desert.

Queen of the Desert has actually been around … well, I was going to say forever but actually, I first started to hear about it in 2014.  It premiered (to less-than-enthusiastic reviews) at the Berlin International Film Festival in February of 2015 and was released in Germany later that same year.  Originally, it was going to get a wide release in America but then IFC acquired the distribution rights and ended up sitting on it for two years.  (During that time, Herzog went on to direct another film, Salt and Fire.)  Only last month did Queen of the Desert finally get a very limited theatrical and VOD release here in the United States.

Despite all of the bad things that I had heard, I was still looking forward to seeing Queen of the Desert.  Why not?  Werner Herzog is one of my favorite directors.  The star of Queen of the Desert, Nicole Kidman, is one of my favorite actresses.  Of course, there was also the Franco factor.  I knew that Queen of the Desert featured James Franco in a small role and, if you’ve been reading this site for a while, y’all know how I feel about James Franco.

Having now watched it, I can say that Queen of the Desert is not the disaster that so many have been insisting.  That doesn’t mean that it’s a great film or even a good film.  It’s a very middle-of-the-road film, one that is too well-made to really be a disaster but, at the same time, is never as memorable as it should be.

Queen of the Desert tells the story of Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman), who abandoned a safely comfortable but restrictive life in turn-of-the-century Britain so that she could explore the world.  In the film, Gertrude falls in love twice and, following the unhappy (and tragic) conclusions of those affairs, she always returns to the Middle East, where surviving the harshness of the desert and exploring the ruins of past civilizations brings her peace and gives her life a greater meaning.

That’s a theme that should be familiar to anyone who has watched any of Herzog’s documentaries or feature films.  The problem is that, as told in this film, there’s no real spark to the story or to Gertrude as a character.  Herzog’s best work has often dealt with people driven to the point of madness by their obsessions.  Think about Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.  Think about Timothy Treadwell, obsessively living with the grizzlies until one them ate him in Grizzly Man.  Consider the introverted eccentrics who explored The Cave of Forgotten Dreams or even Christian Bale’s refusal to allow himself to be broken in the POW film, Rescue Dawn.  Think about Klaus Kinski in just about every film he ever made with Herzog.  For that matter, just think about Werner Herzog himself is Les Blank’s documentary, The Burden of Dreams.  Nicole Kidman would seem like an ideal choice for Gertrude and she does a good job with the role but, as written, Gertrude never has that touch of madness.  Unlike Aguirre, she’s not looking to conquer nature.  Unlike Fitzcarraldo, she’s not trying to bring “civilization” to the isolated spot in the world.  Unlike Timothy Treadwell, she’s not even trying to literally become one with nature.  Instead, she’s just someone who deals with heartache by going on a trip.  I do that every time I spend the weekend up at Lake Texoma.

(The real-life Gertrude Bell died, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, of an overdose of sleeping pills.  Whether it was suicide or an accidental overdose is not known.  In the film, the circumstances of her death — which seem very Herzogian, to be honest — are glossed over by an end title card that simply informs us that she died in 1926.)

As I said earlier, Queen of the Desert is disappointing but it’s not terrible.  Visually, it’s quite stunning and the scenes of the sand blowing in the desert are often a hundred times more interesting than the film’s storyline.  Whenever Herzog is letting his camera focus on the desert or glide over the ruins of an ancient palace, you can understand why Herzog wanted to make this film.  But, unfortunately, the film keeps returning to a story that’s about as middling as an old soap opera.

Nicole Kidman does a good job as Gertrude but she runs into the same problem that she ran into with Grace of Monaco.  She’s stuck with a script that repeatedly tells us that the lead character is fascinating without ever really giving her a chance to prove it.  (Before I get any angry comments, I know that Grace Kelly was fascinating and I’m sure that Gertrude Bell was too.  I’m merely talking about the way that they were portrayed in their biopics.)  As the men in her life, James Franco and Robert Pattinson are both ideal but Damian Lewis is a bit on the dull side.

All in all, this is not one of Werner Herzog’s best but, with all that said, I’ll still follow him anywhere that he chooses to go.

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