Film review: QUEEN OF THE DESERT, from ‘Built For Speed’

Queen of the Desert has nothing to do with Priscilla, this is in fact Werner Hertzog’s latest film and recounts the life of a woman who might be termed the female Lawrence of Arabia, Gertrude Bell.

Nicole Kidman stars as Bell, a spirited intellectual who recoils at the strictures placed on women in early 20th century England.  A scholarly historian she’s given the chance to do archaeological work in Egypt and Iraq just prior to the First World War. Her journey brings her into contact with multitude of Arabic desert cultures as well as various men such as politician Henry Cardogan (James Franco) with whom she falls in love. Impressing the local sheiks with her fearlessness and intellect, Gertrude ascends to a political role which sees her embroiled in the ill-fated attempt to reshape the Middle East at the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

This film initially promises to be both a fascinating investigation of a remarkable woman and an intriguing examination of the western allies’ attempt to carve up the post-war Middle East, the legacy of which is the ongoing conflict in the region.  Unfortunately, the film quickly transforms into a lifeless costume drama and unbearably cheesy romance.

Nicole Kidman never entirely convinces as the forthright Bell. She seems awkwardly uncertain in the role and her breathy delivery of dialogue is disconcertingly hard to hear. Also, we don’t really see what Gertrude does as either historian, archaeologist of politician nor do we have a powerful sense of what compelled her to follow the paths she did in life.

The supporting players don’t fare much better. A badly miscast James Franco wrestles unsuccessfully with a British accent and eventually gives up. He looks weirdly uncomfortable in the role of Cardogan and as supposed a romantic lead he’s about as romantic as Gollum. Robert Pattinson makes almost no impact-except perhaps a comical one-as TE Lawrence while Christopher Fulford hams it up as Winston Churchill.

For the work of a renowned director like Werner Herzog, this is a surprisingly clunky film. Some of the scenes look like they needed another take as actors awkwardly deliver and even seem to fumble their lines.  Also, despite some stunning Middle Eastern and English locations, the film has a cheap tele-movie appearance which is largely due to the use of grimy looking digital video. Some scenes have an oddly empty feel as if they hadn’t been finished in post-production.

Many of Hertzog’s classic films have been notable for the way in which they examined the impact of western imperialists on ancient non-western cultures. There was an opportunity for a similar cultural critique here but Queen of the Desert is more concerned with romantic melodrama. The only substantial theme with which the film even vaguely grapples is the status of women with Gertrude at times impressively defying sexist conventions. In nearly every other respect, however, Queen of the Desert is an astonishingly bad film.

Nick’s rating: *1/2.

Genre: Biopic/ drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Werner Herzog.

Release date: 2nd June 2016.

Running time: 128 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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