Berlin Review: Werner Herzog’s ‘Queen Of The Desert’ Starring Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Robert Pattinson, And More

Berlin Review: Werner Herzog's 'Queen Of The Desert' Starring Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Robert Pattinson, And More

After that lost, long weekend of lucid dreams and crumbling sanity spent rewatching half his catalogue for our Werner Herzog Retrospective, I might have made some pronouncement like: Werner Herzog may have made a few bad films, but he has never made an uninteresting one. He comes damn close, however, with “Queen of the Desert,” which does not deserve the outright trashing that can be felt brewing in the Berlinale air, but also can’t be classed as anything other than a disappointment. Because it’s not even the sort of bad that makes “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans” such a gonzo blast — depressingly, it turns out that not everything is transformed into screams and alligators and the dancing souls of the dead by looking at it through Herzog’s eyes. The notoriously stodgy historical biopic genre looks as self-serious, surface and inert as it would from any old journeyman.

Gertrude Bell, fearlessly and effectively involved herself, ground-level, in the fraught international politics of the crumbling Ottoman Empire in the period around the First World War, and the filmic Bell, played by Nicole Kidman, does all that against appropriately sweeping desert vistas. But she also falls in love twice, and those love affairs, and her pretty, twice-over heartbreak, are what the film mistakes for insight into a complex, intelligent woman’s fascinating inner life. It’s as though Herzog, admiring the historical Bell as we all do, nonetheless decided that whom and how she loved were the key to her, rather than what she thought, learned or believed. It’s a great shame, because believe it or not, the segments of the film that deal with tribal politics and Bell’s quick-witted assessments of them, are far more interesting than watching Kidman flirt with James Franco. Of all the things that made Bell unique, falling in love was not one of them.

But then this is Herzog delivering, of all things, an old-fashioned star vehicle designed to show off the Beauty and Range of its lead. Kidman has both, but by engineering ways in which to show off these qualities, the film does a disservice to the real Bell, who probably didn’t look as good in the bath, but did redraw the map of the Middle East. So we get a movie bracketed by romance, beginning with Bell falling for Henry Cadogan (Franco). This section is the ropiest, with Kidman playing younger, looking like she’s concentrating on being beautiful, and Franco coming off stilted, like he’s trying, very politely, not to step on anyone else’s line (though he does seem to ease into his role later on).

In fact, of the actors not overwhelmed by the heavy sense that “we’re playing old-timey dudes in old-timey duds,” Robert Pattinson (though the duds do sit awkwardly on him), for words about whom, I’ll face the fact that probably 75% of the readers of this review will have expressly tuned in, is most surprising. The part is small. He only has a few scenes, but helped by the writing of TE Lawrence as an ego-driven but lighthearted, whimsical brainbox, he actually sounds like he believes he is living in modern times, not some anachronistic recreation. And so even when he has ponderous words to say, such as when he quotes Jefferson’s famous, damning line, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” he does so lightly, conversationally — unconvincing costume aside, he lets a little life in. And the other pleasant surprise (R-Patz fans, you can tune out now and head straight for the comments) is Damian Lewis, whose style may be more classical than Pattinson’s semi-method manner, but who handles the role of the married consul, whose amused admiration for Bell flares into love with a deftness that had us palpably relaxing during his scenes.

But really, this is The Herzog/Kidman Gertrude Bell Show, and Herzog clearly loves both his actress and his subject, to the point of allowing no blemish to show in Bell, and no unflattering shadow to fall across the face of his leading lady. It’s such a disappointment when you consider the wild portraits of pioneers that Herzog has given us before, that he’s so reverent here. Isn’t he the director who can locate the madness in everything he sees? Where is Bell’s madness?

Actually, Herzog himself scarcely shows through, except in brief moments in certain scenes: vultures picking over human bones; dromedaries lasciviously lapping up water; the faces of the Bedouin; the eternally shifting sands. And each time these images appear, you get a sense of what might have been — imagine if he’d made Kidman live in the desert for a year among the tribes. Imagine if he’d hypnotized the entire cast. Imagine if Bell were played by Klaus Kinski in a dress. Ah yes, just imagine if “Queen of the Desert” had been directed by the Werner Herzog. [C]

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Comments

john

This is a beautiful and interesting film. I enjoyed it a lot and I actually learned some new things about the Middle East. Kidman and Pattinson are O.K., the story moves slowly, but it’s always entertaining, even funny and poetic sometimes. Sure, it’s Herzog at his most mainstream, but it fits Gertrude Bell, who wasn’t Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. She was simply a woman with great curiosity for unknown cultures and that’s shown beautifully.

Jim

The film is so beautifully photographed that it’s easy to forgive some flaws. I’ve never seen the desert quite like this before, in all it’s raw beauty and endless sands. The sand storms are real and you see the difference to the fake ones in other films. Kidman is good and the other actors deliver, even Pattinson in a small part.
What’s really great about the film is the tremendous respect it shows for the cultures of the desert whose tribes are characterized as educated and civilized. It’s a modern view, not the reactionary ‘orientalism’ of older films, where the Europeans are the only force of civilization. Watch it, it’s educational and visually very impressive. You’ll see sand dunes before your eyes for days after…

Jed Nightingale

Sadly enough, the political maneuvering that Gertrude Bell did on behalf of the British Colonial Office turned out to be a major mess. Iraq and Syria were created completely ignorant of th fundamental divisions between Shiites and Sunis. A puppet Hashemite king was installed in Iraq that compounded the political equation of the area. today we can thank Gertrude Bell for the mess in Iraq and Syria
Jed Nightingale

Meeks

The Rover was a good movie?? HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA no.

bjsmith

If I listen to critics all the time I would never go to the movies. I think I am intelligent enough to decide what is good to me or not. I like some of Robert Pattinson’s movies. Cosmopolis was good and the Rover were pretty good. Water for Elephants. just to name a few of my favorites. With some people he will always be known as Edward Cullen.I am one of those who don’t

Allysa mentor

The Rover was a great movie, and Guy and Rob do a great job. It looks this movie us not getting great reviews, but according to critics Rob did a good job, with his small part. So why all the hate??

talia

@leo I have to probably been a rob fan for longer than you as I have actually been following his career from the very beginning and have pretty much seen every film of his,even sat through the horrible bel Ami because rob was in it.

To Laurel

Oh how do you know this is going to be a flop? And if it is, it will only be a flop for Pattinson & not Kidman, Franco & company? Grow up, chick.

Leo

@Talia, you don’t have to say anything negative about Pattinson, you’re a Kristen Stewart fan and you’re really only here to police comments about her. SA is on track to be a flop because of its per screen average. Three weeks is enough time for those projections to be made. Julianne Moore is the only one to get a nomination for the film because she’s really the only reason to see the film and that’s not enough to attract a big enough audience to show a profit. She may win awards for it, but the rest of the film is lacking and Sony knows it. You and other Stewart fans waste your time in the comments section and have no effect on the box office or anything else. You’re not going to change anyone’s opinion about Stewart, especially not in a review of a Pattinson film.

VIC

Saw that movie at the Berlinale. Its horrible.

Tereza

Laurel – What does ‘The Rover’ has to do with ‘Queen of the Desert’ and why is it Pattinson’s fault when QOTD flops at the box office? lol

talia

@MI the only one bitching about anything is you. I haven’t said anything negative about rob, I actually like him and despite him being in QOTD the movie sounds uninteresting so I won’t be paying money to see it.

And as for SA, its only been out for three weeks compared to the other films with best actress nominees that have been out for almost 8 weeks so its not a flop

jm

i wonder if rhonda and laurel are the same troll

Jo

All of Rob’s reviews for QoTD have been very favourable despite the film being flat, which has nothing to do with him. How does anyone know whether the film is going to be a ‘flop’ after one showing – it hasn’t even got to the cinemas yet? I never take notice of critics, apart from Mark Kermode – he’s the only unbiased one out there.

Amber Lee

If the movie fails it won’t be because of Pattinson but Nicole Kidman. She is world famous for her flops. Grace of Monaco was so bad it hasn’t even been released.

mmp

Rhonda and Laurel….get a clue..Pattinson is working on being a great actor one step at a time…get a clue…

P.D.

From the clip I saw of QOTD I was afraid that Herzog would’ve focused on her love life rather than on the tremendous job she did for the Middle-East. Her love life was important but stood totally in the shadow of her work. With the actual situation in Syria and Iraq in mind, I was and stil am looking forward to this movie about an important part in their history. Wallace’s biography of Bell was a difficult read though, I can imagine it wasn’t easy for Herzog to adapt it into a film.
All 3 actors who have brought Lawrence on screen, O’Toole, Fiennes and Pattinson were/are tall, lean and handsome men. How convincing has the real Lawrence been in Arabic clothes though, short as he was with his bright eyes as his only appeal? lol

setha2z

If the material is so bad, what draws these big stars? It’s hard to believe they are just doing it for the money — none of them really needs it. It is interesting that there are no comments to this point about James Franco or his role. They are all about Nicole, Robert and Kristen Stewart, and their love interests. That tells me something about the quality of the comments re: the movie.

Kenyon

Glad to hear that Pattinson’s part was not the problem. Laurel, The Rover was brilliant.

Morella

Laurel, I agree. This has bomb written all over it. The review have been disappointing.

Phillippa

Rotten tomato score is at 4 duds. No fresh. I really want Nicole to make a winner soon besides paddington!

Sorry

Another generic performance by Kidman. Only visible difference between her unprecedented run of flop movies is a change of costume.

Good lord, you children

Pattinson is BARELY in this movie, can you high schoolers take your nonsense elsewhere? God, though you’ll just go clutter up another review. You know, the internet hates you guys and this is why.

Mi

@talia,you and most of kstew fans need grow up and move on.They bitch on Rob’s articles whenever they can,trashing him and his GF.they are responsible for sending lying stories to tabloids about his private life.They are responsible for racist comments they send to his girlfriend calling her monkey and a gold-digger prostitute and burlesque dancer.This is a competition for them.SA is a flop compared to other movies with actresses nominated for an Oscar.

Raine

Keep showing the world what immature losers Kristen Stewart has for fans. You do her no favors with your stupid comments. And if you’re keeping score, Pattinson is still ahead by a mile. He still has an excellent reputation within the industry, something you can’t say about her.

talia

@so_obvious – your clearly purely a rob fan so of course you will blame kristen fans but it doesn’t change the fact that not everybody loves rob nor are they fans of kristen’s either. its just childish blaming each other

Sure

Pattinson did"decently" was said in a review. Wow, so much praise, what an actor.

Guest

lol, just another so-so reviewed film where Pattinson is playing a piece of furniture, just like in Maps To The Stars

So_obvious

Sorry, Talia, but Kristen fans are to blame. They have an agenda with their baseless, negative lies. The praise for Pattinson in this movie is nearly universal, even in reviews that didn’t like the film, they liked his performance. Her fans are bitter, petty and jealous of any success he has. They make it into a competition, and with his 4 Best Supporting Actor nominations this year, he’s winning, so they are even more pressed. They bitch on twitter all day, they’re well known for their ignorant comments. They need to fold their tents and move on.

talia

*negative about rob

Emi

I see Pattinson still owns the butthurt Kristen Stewart fans. Your girl is so boring you must be the first to comment on any Rob article? She’s not enough to keep you occupied? You don’t like her romance with Alicia? New pics of them holding hands at LAX today aren’t enough for you? Rob is getting great reviews for his part in QotD and even if he were in it for 1 minute it would be more worth watching than an hour and a half of your one-expression, monotone lip biter. Stay pressed, losers, Rob is winning in every way.

talia

@MI, @ALI, @OIC – you all need to grow up and stop blaming kristen fans for anything negative about but the same goes for kristen. fans too.

also @MI still alice isn’t a flop, it’s made close to $2 million in less than 100 theatres in three weeks and hasn’t even been released nationwide. Like @neutral mom has said, both rob and kristen have proven themselves since twilight finished and have both been getting good reviews for their performances.

Having read this review, will probably pass on seeing this film even though it has rob in it.

Neutral Mom

Pattinson and Stewart have both proven themselves with great performances and smart choices post Twilight. Shut up and let it rest.

apsara

Thank you for a good review!Always great to hear good things about Rob.

Dawn

To Laural , it doesn’t matter that Rob has had outstanding reviews on his acting , you just don’t like him. Too bad, if you really sat down and watched the movies he has made " Remember Me" "Bel Ami" " Water
for Elephants", the list goes on , even you would feel like an idiot. He is a damn
good actor.

Oic

Why oh why are Kristen Stewart’s fans still obsessed with Robert Pattinson? Isn’t she doing well enough now for you to concentrate on her? I think Rob took on an iconic role in order to work with Herzog, sounds like he did well with what he had to work with. I admire him for making brave choices and stretching himself. He’s not interested in simply playing himself, or the same character over and over again. He should be applauded for taking risks and trying new things imo.

Jacob4ever

#TeamJacob

Mi

@laurel and @Rhonda,you are kstew fans,what are you doing here?Focus on your queeny and her flops like Camp X Ray and even SA despite Oscar nom for Moore.

ali

Just as I thought first commenters here are kristen stewart fans who are still butthurt that she turned out to beca disappointment to them a homewrecker to boot. And now looks like she’s living in a lesbian relationship. Of course Rob P is to blame he destroyed their dream LOLOL

Sophia

Love the review, thank you.

cary

Well, I thought that Rescue Dawn was going to be the tamest one Herzog in his career.

James

Rhonda- Where are those bad reviews you are talking about? So far, I’ve only seen three reviews (this one, The Guardian and The Independent) and they are all good.

Laurel

Another flop for The Vampure. PATTINSON is an example that with a good team you can buy a career even if you are a bad actor and a such flop at box office. The Rover was the worst last year, the same will be with queen of the desert.

Rhonda

I wonder if Edward Cjllen buys his reviews. The others critics said the movie is the worst of Werner and Pattinson is two minutes in the movie.

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