Queen of the Desert is a gorgeously shot and essentially conventional biographical drama written and directed by Werner Herzog. Nicole Kidman stars as Gertrude Bell, an English archaeologist, writer, political officer and contemporary of T.E. Lawrence who spent decades travelling the deserts of Arabia and Mesopotamia, learning about and establishing relations with many of the Bedouin tribal groups who dwelt there. British officials increasingly came to rely on Bell’s expertise and contacts with tribal leaders in their attempts to govern the region in the wake of World War One and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Her recommendations played a critical role in the foundation and early administration of the modern state of Iraq, and in delineating the borders between Iraq and Jordan.
The audience is introduced to Gertrude in 1902. Freshly graduated from Oxford and hungry for adventure, she convinces her father to let her escape the confines of Victorian England and visit her diplomat uncle in Tehran. While there Gertrude meets and falls in love with a young embassy aide played by James Franco. Kidman makes a valiant effort, but it’s hard to share Gertrude’s grief when a tragedy abruptly brings an end to the unconvincing, verging on awkward romance between her character and Franco’s. Heartbroken, Gertrude abandons civilization and spends the next several years roaming the desert, gazing upon wonders like the hidden gorge of Wadi Mujib and encountering a young T.E. Lawrence, portrayed as an endearingly pretentious oddball by an unusually charming Robert Pattinson.
Conflict eventually catches up to Gertrude as British Intelligence attempt to exploit her local knowledge and her curiosity drives her to explore more dangerous, hostile territories where violent tribal disputes are common. There’s also more romance, this time with a married British consul in Damascus played by Damian Lewis. Kidman and Lewis make a more plausible pair than Kidman and Franco, but the time devoted to depicting their protracted love affair might have been better spent on the underexplored platonic relationship between Gertrude and her long serving local guide Fattouh (Jay Abdo). The emphasis on romance is uncharacteristic for Herzog, typically the most unromantic of directors.
More generally, there is a sense of sentimentality pervading Queen of the Desert that seems almost shocking coming from the famously cynical director. Herzog’s speeches about the unrelenting brutality, violence and indifference of nature are legendary, as is his contempt for those who insist on idealizing the natural world. Yet here Herzog focuses on the beauty of nature with an endless series of stunning, widescreen landscapes accompanied by voiceover musings from Gertrude about her love for the desert. Where protagonists in previous Herzog films faced profound suffering and struggle in nature, Gertrude never sustains so much as a sunburn during her travels.
There is a similarly strange dynamic at play in Herzog’s approach to his central character in Queen of the Desert. Not only does he fail to subject her to the same misery as his other fictional creations, he denies her obvious flaws. Some of the characters in Werner Herzog’s features and documentaries are fools, some are narcissists, a few are deformed, many are to some extent insane, a couple are outright evil and almost all are delusional. These flaws and pathologies are the foundation of complex, compelling, memorable characters, and while Gertrude’s competence, intelligence and steeliness are admirable, they aren’t exactly captivating. It’s a shame, because one imagines that the real Gertrude Bell must have had at least a glint of madness in her eye as she trekked into a vast, barren Arabian desert.