Gertrude Bell was a revolutionary. She was a strong woman with adventure coursing through her veins. Her story is filled with affairs with British officers, treks alone in the desert during wartime and breaking every glass ceiling in her way. This story was put in the hands of master director Werner Herzog to boot. Why, then, is “Queen of the Desert” one epic, inert slog?
The film chronicles the life of Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman), a female British explorer who traveled across vast deserts in the Middle East during wartime in the early 20th century. Gertrude starts out as an inquisitive force, moving to Tehran to learn more. Here she falls for a secretary of the embassy, Henry Cadogan (James Franco). However, she quells her passions to chart the uncharted deserts in front of her. Even more revolutionary is how Bell combats the rampant sexism prevalent in the Middle East at that time.
The fault doesn’t lie with star Nicole Kidman. She commands every frame with the star presence we have come to know from her. Cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger structures every shot around how to make Kidman look even more like a goddess. That works for a trailer, or a still image. In fact, this film would work great as a series of stills. However, the vanity around all of it is empty. One can see Kidman chomping at the bit for a meaty scene to play. In an epic so devoid of conflict, Kidman gives it her all any time she is met with a worthy scene partner.
Her scene partners deliver, albeit with mixed results. Three leading men fill the screen opposite Kidman. James Franco plays Henry Cadogan, a British officer Bell embarks on an affair with. Damian Lewis is a much more commandeering figure as Charles Doughty-Wylie. Both try their hardest to breathe life into empty characters. The only person, Kidman included, who really has fun with their role is surprising. As T.E. Lawrence (yes, Lawrence of Arabia himself), Robert Pattinson is the sole jump start of energy to the film. That’s the level we are operating on here. Pattinson in Peter O’Toole’s iconic role is the best thing about this film.
Everything is inert – the editing, the images, the direction. There is a fascinating film to be made about Gertrude Bell. Like most great biopics of recent years, these films are great because they are not about fan service. Great biopics give us a new perspective and take on events that we can read about in a history book. It’s easy to see how the story on paper attracted so many people. Kidman saw a strong female protagonist. Herzog saw a chance to explore the desert in stunning fashion. Everyone else wanted to work with them. There was the desire to make something great. Unfortunately, everyone just missed the essential building blocks of a film. They missed conflict. They missed adventure. Most of all, they missed any sort of drama.
“Queen of the Desert” opens in theaters April 7 and on VOD April 14.