Queen of the Desert

QUEEN OF THE DESERT, rated PG-13, biopic, in English, Ara­bic, and Turk­ish with sub­ti­tles, The Screen, 1.5 chiles

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

Not all great au­teurs make great films ev­ery time they sit in the direc­tor’s chair — not even Werner Her­zog. Few liv­ing di­rec­tors have a body of work as di­verse and af­fect­ing as his, with such mass ap­peal, and yet, still pro­found in ways you would think only sea­soned cin­ema­go­ers and cineastes could ap­pre­ci­ate. As a doc­u­men­tar­ian, he finds the un­con­sid­ered an­gles on a topic, and gets un­der your skin. The same can be said for his nar­ra­tive fea­tures. Films such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitz­car­raldo are clas­sics of cinema, and his more re­cent doc­u­men­tary fea­tures — Griz­zly Man, En­coun­ters at the End of the World, Into the Abyss, and Cave of For­got­ten Dreams — are all highly re­garded among fans and crit­ics. But now we have his Ishtar, the bizarre Queen of the Desert, a biopic on English au­thor, spy, and po­lit­i­cal ad­min­is­tra­tor Gertrude Bell. I love Werner Her­zog. It pains me to write this re­view.

The real Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), played on screen by Ni­cole Kid­man, was a pow­er­ful woman whose in­flu­ence helped shape Bri­tish im­pe­rial pol­icy in the Mid­dle East after World War I, help­ing to es­tab­lish the mod­ern state of Iraq. She was an ad­ven­turer, an arche­ol­o­gist, a moun­taineer, a lin­guist, and a car­tog­ra­pher — noth­ing short of a poly­math. She was also the con­fi­dant of Arab princes and kings. She had some brief and pas­sion­ate af­fairs, but in this Hol­ly­wood treat­ment ev­ery­one falls in love with her, is im­pressed by her guile, and bends to her wants — the soft glow that Her­zog bathes her in prov­ing stronger than a man’s will. One so hopes that Her­zog, who wrote the screen­play, is skew­er­ing well-worn tropes of the mod­ern, in­de­pen­dent woman break­ing Vic­to­rian con­ven­tions and step­ping out­side of so­ci­etal roles. “No one sum­mons me,” she has the au­dac­ity to tell a sheik and, yet, he did sum­mon her — and she came. Queen of the

Desert takes it­self too se­ri­ously, and there’s no real trace of irony in the telling, no mat­ter how badly we wish there were. “My heart be­longs to no one but the desert,” Bell says on one of her long treks by camel through the blis­ter­ing sands. Such scenes are beau­ti­fully filmed, and there is one great Her­zo­gian mo­ment in the film that he shot dur­ing an ac­tual sand­storm.

Bell is a role Kid­man was born to play, but she’s also been type­cast as the Bri­tish im­pe­ri­al­ist sav­ior of the brown races once again. We saw this in Baz Luhrmann’s corn fest Aus­tralia when it was the Abo­rig­ines. In Queen of the Desert, it’s the Be­douin tribes. As a young T.E. Lawrence, Robert Pat­tin­son looks ridicu­lous in a kaf­tan and kef­fiyeh, like he’s on his way to a fancy-dress ball. His scenes are mer­ci­fully brief, but the same can­not be said for the scenes with the mis­cast James Franco as Henry Cado­gan, Vis­count Chelsea, an early love in­ter­est of Bell’s, a role orig­i­nally in­tended for Jude Law. Most of Bell’s suit­ors seem to be about half her age, un­like their real-life coun­ter­parts. An ex­cep­tion to the cast­ing of young men as her lovers is Damian Lewis as Bri­tish of­fi­cer Charles Doughty-Wylie, a would-be in­amorato who was later killed in the Bat­tle of Gal­lipoli. Lewis is a fine ac­tor and puts in a cred­i­ble per­for­mance.

Kid­man does, too, although too much of her story is told in voice-over nar­ra­tion. There’s an art to voice-overs that can be summed up as “keep it brief,” and Kid­man is a good enough ac­tor to con­vey emo­tion con­vinc­ingly with­out un­nec­es­sary ex­pla­na­tions for her in­ter­nal con­flicts. She is in just about ev­ery scene, mak­ing Queen of the Desert feel like a van­ity project. She re­port­edly told the press after the 2015 Ber­lin In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val pre­miere that she begged Her­zog to in­clude a scene of her bathing in the desert. He did. But what man could refuse her re­quest, es­pe­cially in that soft cin­e­matic glow?

— Michael Abatemarco

I’d walk a mile for a camel: As­saad Bouab and Ni­cole Kid­man

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