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]