The title, poster or the names in the cast did not entirely convince me that I should go see this film. However, I noted the name of the director Werner Herzog on the poster and that caught my attention. I recognized the name as a legendary one in German cinema, especially during the 1970s and 80s. I have never seen a Herzog film before, so I felt compelled to watch this one.
"Queen of the Desert" is about Gertrude Bell, known as an adventurer, archaeologist, explorer, cartographer, writer and political attaché for the British Empire in the early years of the twentieth century. She was an independent-minded aristocratic British lady who greatly admired the nomadic way of life of the Bedouins of the Arabian deserts. Because of this fascination, she made it her lifelong calling to experience their rich cultures, language and politics first hand.
Nicole Kidman gets to play Ms. Bell from teen (!) to mature woman, so you can already imagine how credibility was being strained in the first few scenes. I don't know why Nicole looked so thin and fragile in this film, such that it was also a challenge to believe that she could survive the rigors of difficult desert life with such an air of delicate glamour about her. Despite these limitations, Ms. Kidman was able to carry the film with the grace and dignity as would be expected of an actress of her caliber.
We spent a long time at the start getting to know her first great love, Henry Cadogan (a very charming James Franco), a character whom we do not see anymore after the 40 minute mark. The next hour, we will meet the next man she let into her life, the unhappily married Charles Doughty-Wylie (a rather uncharismatic Damian Lewis). We also see Ms. Bell's encounters with a very young T.E. Lawrence (a giddy Robert Pattinson), as well as a young boy sheik who wanted Bell in his harem.
This was a typical biopic, cherry-picking "film-worthy" episodes of Ms. Bell's life to show in chronological order, with convenient labels to denote the time and place of subsequent scenes. There was no sense of adventure as everything felt like very sterile and safe melodrama. There was not enough tension in those scenes that should have been very tense. The whole film ended weakly on a mere prediction of hers which would eventually became a reality. Sadly, it never got to show how that prediction was actually realized.
This film never really let me feel what was it about the Bedouin lifestyle that attracted Ms. Bell to forsake the comforts of her station in life and follow them. The pace of the storytelling was as languid as a hot day in the desert. I do not think this was in vintage Werner Herzog style, which was very disappointing. The name of Gertrude Bell carried with it many titles, I felt it was unfortunate of this movie to focus more about the various men in Ms. Bell's life, rather than detail her political and historical achievements which felt rushed in treatment. 5/10.