Werner Herzog, “Queen of the Desert” (2013)
Renowned German film director Werner Herzog, maker of classics like “Aguirre: Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo” could have done something just as eerie and awe-inspiring with the subject of the life of early 20th-century British adventurer-archaeologist-explorer-spy Gertrude Bell, who travelled across the Middle East several times over a period of 12 years before 1914 documenting and publishing her observations and photographs of life in the cities there and among the Bedouin and Druze peoples in the region. Bell would later become a policy advisor to the British government in dealing with the tribal peoples of Arabia and in obtaining the loyalty of those peoples’ leaders, and play a significant role in the creation of Iraq and its early political institutions, and in the country’s administration. Here is enough meaty and challenging material for a director such as Herzog, whose films reveal a fascination with the motivations of singular individuals, and what inspires them to great achievements and equally noble failures.
Instead what Herzog delivers is a very boring and flat two-hour snoozefest of Hollywood-style banalities in which Bell’s life is shaped by two romantic relationships and two meetings with Thomas E Lawrence (of Lawrence of Arabia fame). Between these episodes her travels to the Levant and Arabia and the bonds that develop between her and the peoples there are treated very superficially. Viewers learn very little about how the young Gertrude Bell refused to follow the expected path of early marriage and motherhood or what motivated her to leave the comforts and safety of Western civilisation and travel among little-known peoples in the Middle East. We do not learn how women travellers of her time might have been regarded by the peoples she visited, whether they treated Bell differently from European male travellers because of her sex or her personality or because she demanded nothing more from them than their hospitality. The most Herzog offers about Bell’s determination and motivation is a small scene in which she tells a British military officer that she admires the “freedom” and “dignity” that the Bedouin supposedly possess. What does Bell mean by saying that?
The acting by Nicole Kidman (miscast as Bell) and the cast surrounding her is competent enough but there is no chemistry between her and her lovers (played by James Franco and Damien Lewis). Ultimately though the nebulous nature of the project, the lack of a definite theme behind it, the flat script and its emphasis on technical details like nice cinematography, the fashions of the day and Kidman’s looks over Bell’s contacts with one set of exotic people after another, and what they might mean for the future of the Middle East, defeat the actors.
What I find most annoying is that when the plot comes close to an incident in Bell’s personal life or a significant political event that she participates in, it immediately ducks away to something irrelevant. The film reduces Bell and her life to a series of romantic encounters (and very lazily sketched ones at that) that may or may not be based on her actual life to satisfy a narrow agenda which views women as incomplete or not quite human unless they’re attached to a man.