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Berlin Review: Why ‘Queen of the Desert,’ Starring Nicole Kidman, is Werner Herzog’s Worst Movie in Years

Berlin Review: Why 'Queen of the Desert,' Starring Nicole Kidman, is Werner Herzog's Worst Movie in Years

Werner Herzog and Nicole Kidman get royally bunkered in “Queen of the Desert,” a stunning misfire which counts as the first major disappointment of this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. This independently-produced biopic of the revered British explorer-writer-archeologist Gertrude Bell, budgeted at a reported $36 million, will struggle to recoup that figure in North America – presuming it does obtain a proper theatrical release.

Bell (1868-1926) lacks the name recognition of Grace Kelly in most territories, though it’s a different story in the Middle East, the part of the world where she made her name – according to legend, she decided the boundaries of modern-day Iraq using a pencil and ruler – and where she remains much better known than her cinema-immortalized male “counterpart,” T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”).

READ MORE: The Best Things Werner Herzog, Nicole Kidman and James Franco Said About ‘Queen of the Desert’

But any comparisons with David Lean’s landmark 1962 epic “Lawrence of Arabia” are, unsurprisingly, not to Herzog’s advantage — ditto Richard Boleslawski’s “Garden of Allah,” in which Marlene Dietrich smoldered and suffered so nobly among the unforgiving dunes. If anything, it will appeal more strongly to fans of Stephan Elliot’s riotous 1994 camp classic “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” though midnight-movie denizens presumably weren’t Herzog’s target audience when he started work on the screenplay.

It’s obvious that he’s on more than nodding terms with Lean’s Oscar-magnet (whose seminal Maurice Jarre score resurfaces in Klaus Badelt’s stylings here), having reverse-quoted Lean’s iconic extended sequence of a camel-rider emerging from desertine mirages for the astonishing finale of his 1979 near-masterpiece “Nosferatu – The Vampyre.”

That was, rather remarkably, Herzog’s last Berlin International Film Festival competition entry before “Queen of the Desert” – and, via the spirited and self-sacrificing character of Isabelle Adjani’s Lucy, it’s maybe the closest thing in his entire fictional oeuvre to a film with a female protagonist .

Fans of his documentaries will of course recall Fini Straubinger from 1971’s “Land of Silence and Darkness” — not that Herzog himself would recognize the term “documentary,” just as he has so often railed against how “facts” are a trap for the literal-minded. (The “accountant’s truth,” in his irresistible phrase.

To point out that in its first minutes “Queen of the Desert” presents a 1902 in which Queen Victoria is still alive – the Empress kicked the bucket in January 1901 – is, presumably, to succumb to the narrow-mindedness of the beancounter. But if Herzog is going to be so cavalier about such details, why does he punctuate his film with so many datelines – specific years, places, “three months later,” and so on – and give the whole thing a tawdry, old-fashioned TV movie air? And if the “accountant’s truth” is to be eschewed, wouldn’t it be a good idea to instead deliver a bit of his preferred alternative, “ecstatic truth”?

As it is, Herzog plods – in unremarkable digital widescreen –  through various key episodes in Bell’s life over the course of roughly a decade or so, with the emphasis very much on how the career of this Oxford-educated semi-aristocrat was affected by her various romances. Most notable among these is a passionate but “unsuitable” involvement with a relatively lowly embassy official in Tehran, Henry Cadogan. In what sometimes feels like yet another one of the protean actor’s tiresome pranks, Cadogan is played with indeterminate accent and hazy-eyed lunkishness by James Franco; the supposedly intense romantic scenes between Cadogan and Bell show the limitations of both performers.

Despite throwing herself into a life of chaste-wandering and work (“My heart belongs to no one now but the desert”), Bell does eventually end up in another lover’s arms, drifting into an ill-advised affair with married army-officer Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis). Once again, sparks of genuine ardor are conspicuous by their absence, and the “Downton Abbey”-level, lazily-anachronistic dialogue (not to mention Kidman’s makeup) is more hindrance than help.

Choosing to make a film about such an astonishing, rule-disregarding, inspirational woman and concentrate on her relationships with fellas (“I’m just a woman who misses her man,” she sighs)  is questionable enough as it is – but if Herzog had managed to properly dramatize those relationships, he might have conceivably gotten away with it, rather than ending up with this exercise in syrupy, (sometimes cringe-inducing) banality.

The most ironic aspect of the enterprise is that the one man with whom Bell conducts believable, intriguing dealings is the one upon whom her sex-appeal has zero effect: none other than T.E. Lawrence himself, played with a plummy-voiced knowingness by Robert Pattinson. Pattinson doesn’t get very much screen time here, but manages to come up with a Lawrence a universe away from Peter O’Toole’s iconic portrayal – a kind of proto-Beat rebel in fancy Arab duds – and his dialogue exchanges with Kidman have a little touch of Steed and Mrs. Peel that at least gives their scenes some kind of oomph.

Elsewhere, with the exception of a couple of amusing wide-angle images of an ornery vulture and, later, some camels, Herzog – whose desert experience stretches back to 1971’s hallucinatory “Fata Morgana” – seems disappointingly content to rein in his usual excesses and ends up delivering his most thuddingly anonymous directorial work for decades.

Where is the berserk majesty of 2009’s double-whammy “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” and “My Son My Son, What Have You Done?” What’s he playing at here? Having gotten one foot in Hollywood’s door menacing Kidman’s ex Tom Cruise in “Jack Reacher,” is he now hoping to convince some studio that he’s capable of handling a major project? If so, “Queen of the Desert” is what the no-nonsense Miss Bell – who’d surely have despised this picture – might call a bloody funny way of going about it.

Grade: D-

“Queen of the Desert” premiered this week at the Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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Amy Luna

It’s as I feared, after seeing the trailer. Hollywood destroys another female biopic. I read the book Desert Queen when it first came out in 1996 and was floored by Bell’s remarkable and inspiring story. Once the U.S. entered into conflict in Iraq in 2003, I though for SURE someone would make a movie of this incredible woman’s life and her pivotal role in this region of the world. For over a decade I have waited and watched while the project was handed off from one person to another. I am livid that this history had been so bastardized with a sappy treatment, all too familiar when the stories of the great women of history are concerned. Now we’ll never have the movie of this grand and courageous woman that we all deserve to see. When people claim that women didn’t contribute to history, it’s film like this that prop up that propaganda, by trivializing the lives of superlative persons with the unfortunate luck of having been born female. They say history is written by the winners and I guess men are still winning…


Don’t believe Mr. Young, this is a good film with beautiful cinematography and fine performances. Sure, there are flaws in the script and the casting, but I enjoyed the experience of this film immensely! It’s romantic, funny and moving, but in a subtle and classical way. You see the real desert in the Middle East, not some fake environment. It’s educational, too, I didn’t know anything about Gertrude Bell and now I want to read some of her books…fascinating woman. Worth watching!


    @Linda – “You see the real desert in the Middle East” No, you don’t. This was filmed in Morocco, which is in North Africa.


Why do people feel obliged to use the term "near-masterpiece"? That sentence about Nosferatu – The Vampyre would have worked fine without telling us you think it isn’t quite a masterpiece. Why put that adjective in there? Sorry, but this is a big pet peeve. Besides that it was a well put together review and I am unfortunately thinking about not seeing this film now. I really wanted a crazy big budget Herzog film.

M. Bison Ya Dig

Nicole is just making bomb after bomb. its sad.


True willymac, Kidman doesn’t have the range to elevate a film to greatness. Her self-proclaimed "bold choices" invariably fall flat because the talent simply isn’t there.


I never have seen the appeal of Kidman as an actor- and especially now, she cannot emote with her frozen face. I LOVED the book, "Queen of the Desert" and am a huge fan of Gertrude Bell – and extremely disappointed that even a great director wasn’t able to bring this amazing woman’s life to life on film as it deserved. It started with a mis-cast of Kidman.


That reviewer "Neil Young" sounds like a kid throwing a tantrum because he didn’t get what he wanted for Christmas…
And Kidman haters always sound like idiots. Willymac – You are a fool. Watch "Moulin Rouge", "To Die For", "The Others", "Birth", "Rabbit Hole" or "Dogville". If you still think Kidman has no screen presence and can’t carry a film after that, you need mental help.


God love her, Nick works so hard, but you know there’s one thing you can’t achieve through nose to the grind stone hard work, that’s screen presence. It isn’t fair, but that’s the way it is. The lady cannot carry a film.


Hey Neil, stick to songwriting since film criticism clearly isn’t your forte.


How dramatic,lol.It’s not a comic book movie,relax,Mr Young.


I will still watch it. Expectations for Herzog are high and specific. He may have missed the boat on the real story of Gertrude, but, old fashioned romance is still better than a lot of crap out there. This is the harshest of he reviews I have read, most are more mixed and more positive.


@LOL&MOVE ON. Just spare us this childish crap. Please.


Joshua Oppenheimer, the director of "The Act of Killing", loved the film. He tweeted : "Werner herzog’s queen of the desert is a resplendent, poetic masterpiece. Nicole Kidman delivers a career defining performance."


"Neil Young" seems very eager to rip the film apart. It’s weird. I’ve read far more interesting, balanced reviews elsewhere. And "Oh Dear", Kidman is actually getting good reviews for her performance in this film. Most of the criticism is aimed at Herzog and James Franco. So it’s weird that you would make such a ridiculous statement about Kidman.


I don’t know…that’s a lot of words and it doesn’t really say much.


I’ve just read positive reviews for "Queen of the desert" from Variety, Screendaily, The Guardian and The Independent. I’ll see the film and judge for myself.

Oh dear

Keep them coming Kidman. The more prolific you become, the more obvious your deplorable lack of talent becomes.


hey yo. I won’t pretend I love every Herzog film but I like a lot of them and I’ll just judge for my hoi polloi self.

Move On

LOL, Kristen Stewart fans are acting like the immature brats they are. Pattinson is receiving the best reviews of anyone in the film, across the board. Deal with it and get a life.


lol, pattinson’s fans are acting like he’s receiving raves


Yikes, that’s disappointing. A D-? Won’t be watching this one if he takes Gertrude Bell’s life and focuses on the men in her life.


Love that Pattison’s scenes with Kidman are the highlight: "believable, intriguing… gives their scenes some kind of oomph." The scipt must hav been awful, I don’t know what Herzog was thinking, but most of the reviews have said Pattison was the one bright spot in an otherwise dismal film. Can’t wait to see what you think of Life later this week.


I do remember when Nicole Kidman could act and one lives in hope that it might happen again, but chewed up and spat out by the Hollywood system as she is, it is unlikely. You have to be real to act and when you are no longer real, you can no longer act.
Queen of the Desert is the most appalling waste of time, money, effort and as boring as batshit which, given the fascinating story it could have told about Gertrude Bell is a tragedy and an embarrassment.
How can people with some talent and plenty of experience turn out pap, rather, crap, like this? The real art of the Hollywood movie system is to take a brilliant story and turn it into mindless, cretinous tedium.


Originally, it seems that the project of a biopic on Gertrude Bell was one of Ridley Scott’s (with Angelina Jolie to impersonate her – yuck) : he would have directed it just after Prometheus (and this actually explains the latter nods to David Leans’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’).
By any chance, does anone know why Scott dropped it and how it got into Herzog’s hands ?

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