THE director of this epic celebration of the brief life of Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) is the much-lauded New German Cinema auteur Werner Herzog — perhaps raising fears of a bloated invocation of Bell’s extraordinary exploits in the era of TE Lawrence. Yet it’s not a bleak excursion into alienation by the man named by François Truffaut as “the most important film director alive”.
Queen of the Desert (a repellent title) veers far from what we might have expected of Herzog. His first film in six years, it is curiously mainstream in its gentrification of Bell’s cushioned early life — and on to the desert imagery (which, like the music, owes too much to David Lean’s 1962 Lawrence of Arabia) and the singularity of a young pre-modern woman breaking free of her Downton Abbey-style childhood to stride forth into the violent sands of the Middle East with little physical protection and facing huge cultural animus.
So everything depends on the image of Bell. While the truth of this portrait can only be settled by historians, the brave and cantankerous Bell looked nothing like Kidman, the “queen” of warring Arab tribes implicated in imperial designs on the oil-rich lands formerly ruled by the Ottoman Empire, which disintegrated after World War 1.
Kidman is a vision of female power, unafraid, made wretched only by the deaths of two men she is said to have loved. They are strongly played by Franco as Henry Cadogan; less effectively by Lewis as Charles Doughty-Wylie; and both became suicidal by her assertion of personal liberation, apparently. At any rate she remained unmarried, had no children, and no enduring love other than the Bedouin, whose trust she certainly gained in traversing their lands for material for books, with a sideline in espionage for the British.
The narrative is sequential, so we first meet her Victorian father and controlling stepmother (whose wish is for her to marry “well“), before moving on to her life as an Oxford scholar, adventurer, explorer and cartographer. Like Lawrence (Pattinson) she reported on the incredible expanses of Arabia with a detestation of the Ottomans. Indeed, she witnessed the Armenian Genocide, an exposure to horror surely as intense as Lawrence’s, who was repulsed at killing with his tribesmen, their loyalty bought with promises of independence.
The terrible enmities of lands such as Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the unending conflicts of Israel and Palestine were initially merely lines drawn on a map by the Allies. Bell and Lawrence contributed to this early division of the spoils by their spying; but this sensitive issue is not explored.
We do, however, see the nastier side of what it meant when the Great Powers gathered in smoky rooms to determine the fate of entire peoples.
There is an unsavoury portrait of Winston Churchill (Fulford) demanding that areas of colonial interest be determined right then — in the midst of a hideous war. We witness his oafishness as he falls off his mount. Perhaps the great man was drunk?
As Lawrence, Pattinson projects him as a childish fop. He no sooner meets Bell than he blurts out an indecorous joke that no-one who has read Lawrence could give credence to. If the intention was to make him a diminutive narcissist, the actor loses it, and can’t displace the tormented image many retain of Peter O’Toole in Lean’s masterpiece.
The resident image and mood is furnished by the fragrant Kidman. As public interest in Bell rises — as it will — a very different woman may become plainer than Queen of the Desert’s displaced warrior-woman promoting the feminist ideals of, say, 100 years ago.
Queen of the Desert
Written and directed by Werner Herzog
Lead roles: Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Damian Lewis, Robert Pattinson, Christopher Fulford