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