One of the Berlin Film Festival’s most-anticipated movies is Werner Herzog’s “Queen of the Desert,” which stars Nicole Kidman as Gertrude Bell, a British explorer sometimes called the female Lawrence of Arabia. (She does look a little bit like Peter O’Toole around the eyes.) Unfortunately, based on the reviews, that anticipation has ended in disappointment, with critics calling “Queen” an anonymous biopic on which its celebrated auteur’s stamp is only a faint impression. Robert Pattinson gets relatively high marks for his brief turn as the bonafide T.E. Lawrence, but James Franco’s turn as British politician Henry Cadogan is drawing winces, especially for his dodgy English accent. More reviews should surface after the film’s public world premiere tonight.
Reviews of “Queen of the Desert”
David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter
Werner Herzog’s first narrative feature in six years, “Queen of the Desert,” has no scarcity of the quixotic German auteur’s key themes. Tracing the life of British explorer Gertrude Bell, whose unique understanding of Bedouin cultures helped reshape the Arab world in the early 1900s, this is the story of a woman penetrating the boundaries of nature as a refuge from the constricting conventions of society, the rigidity of colonialism and the cruelties of the human heart. Like so many Herzogian protagonists, she loses herself in a landscape of solitude that mirrors her state of mind. So why are all those tired camels onscreen not the only ones groaning?
Peter Bradshaw, Guardian
Here is the kind of film that you can hardly believe is the work of Werner Herzog who has written and directed it. It is grown-up, respectable and historical, perfectly competently made, lots of accents and period dressing-up … and just the tiniest bit dull. [James Franco] certainly puts the “cad” in Cadogan, but his very odd English accent and cheesy ingratiating grin makes him look and sound like some lost member of the Monkees. As for Kidman herself, she does a perfectly reasonable job with this difficult role and she is well cast. But she never cuts loose, never unleashes the kind of rage, or love, or despair that you sense is simmering inside.
Peter Debruge, Variety
Though Nicole Kidman is hardly the female Klaus Kinski, in the formidable character epic “Queen of the Desert, she conveys with quiet determination what Kinski never could: the kind of conviction that changes the world. Whereas the films he made with Kinski traded on the combustible actor’s volatility, this collaboration with Kidman uses the actress’ poised and almost regal bearing to its advantage. It also finds the actress looking younger and more expressive than she has in years, and though it’s impolite to remark on the “work” that movie stars have done, Kidman convincingly manages to play Bell as a delicate yet determined twentysomething, forging her way across untamed deserts, but still fragile enough to fall in love on two separate occasions
Sophie Monks Kaufman, Little White Lies
Kidman gives a game but characteristically distant performance, less convincing as an impetuous romantic lead, more convincing as a self-possessed adventuress. The narrative is simply Gertrude forging out on her own, leading a group of men into the desert lands, against the wishes of the British consulate. She moves gently among the Bedouin people that fascinate her, evading sticky situations with graceful diplomacy. Even without James Franco, she shows a flair for drama, particularly when opening envelopes and/or reading letters.
Jessica Kiang, the Playlist
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 largely as self-serious and surface and inert as it does via Herzog as it does through any old journeyman’s perspective. Herzog himself scarcely shows through, except in moments, brief scenes of vultures picking over human bones; of dromedaries lasciviously lapping up water; of the faces of the Bedouin; of the eternally shifting sands.
Geoffrey Macnab, Independent
We are never quite sure whether the film is intended as an epic weepie or a character study of a visionary British eccentric. This is the closest Herzog has come to making a conventional Hollywood movie – what it lacks is the perversity, drive and wildness that are usually his hallmark.
Tim Robey, Telegraph
The film is amusingly top-heavy with its smooching trysts, star power and extravagant desert vistas. The danger of this approach is keeping it up: when Herzog tries to explain the complexity of Bell’s career, her unusual influence in imperial policymaking and love of the Arab peoples, that soft, rumbling sound isn’t the shifting sands of a world order changing, but merely an audience nodding off.
Mark Adams, Screen International
As might be expected, Herzog comes up with some striking footage and enthralling visual sequences (though some of his camera movements feel clumsy at times), but this awfully big adventure – very much in the vogue of the derring-do of the well-to-do British adventurer/explorer – lacks real dramatic drive and heads into unfortunately bloated melodramatic territory.
Yikes, Herzog’s Queen of the Desert. You can see why he liked subject, but it’s oddly straight, untextured for him. Poor cast. Silly script.
— Dave Calhoun (@davecalhoun) February 6, 2015
My review of Queen of the Desert #Berlinale will be up later after the premiere. Think Downton Abbey in the Dunes, and you’ll get the idea.
— Kate Muir (@muirkate) February 6, 2015
QUEEN OF THE DESERT is no AMELIA, I’m telling you.
— Tim Robey (@trim_obey) February 6, 2015
— Harry Windsor (@PalaceSt) February 6, 2015
— CineVue (@CineVue) February 6, 2015
Herzog’s QUEEN OF THE DESERT a dud, sad to report. Cringe-inducingly old-fashioned, and misguided in its romantic focus. Camel-toed stuff.
— Neil Young (@JigsawLounge) February 6, 2015