Queen of the Desert

June 3, 2016
Nicole Kidman in 'Queen of the Desert' (2015)
Nicole Kidman in 'Queen of the Desert' (2015)

Werner Herzog has made some great movies in the course of a career of more than 50 years, but Queen of the Desert isn’t one of them. In this biopic – a virtual masterpiece of miscasting – the “waif-like” Gertrude Bell is represented by the towering form of Our Nic; James Franco struggles with a British accent in portraying diplomat, Henry Cadogan; while former teen vampire, Robert Pattinson is (believe it or not) Lawrence of Arabia. Anyone who remembers Peter O’Toole in the role should get prepared for the worst. The only true Brit is Damian Lewis who plays Bell’s admirer, Richard Doughty-Wylie, even though the real Doughty-Wylie was as bald as a billiard ball.

Surely there were enough good English actors to play these quintessentially English characters? Although nationality and accent seem to count for nothing in today’s globalised film scene, actors must have some hard-wired affinity for their own cultural heritage.

Middle-Eastern explorer, Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), was such a remarkable figure it’s surprising we’ve had to wait so long for a biopic. The problem for potential filmmakers was the same one that has tripped up Bell’s many biographers: there was simply too much information. Bell wrote everything down in letters, diaries and books, giving us an unusually complete self-portrait. Yet her most important activities were long treks into the desert or political manoeuvrings that took place behind closed doors, neither allowing much cinematic leeway.

A final stumbling block for any filmmaker was Bell’s love life, or lack thereof. She has been described as “handsome” but not exactly beautiful. She intimidated hapless men with her intellect, and seems to have taken a saint-like pride in her renunciation of the flesh. Of the two great affairs in her life, neither of them was consummated.

Herzog has faced the dilemma of trying to bring a little Hollywood romance into this extraordinary, unique life. In this he seems to be working against his own instincts. One wonders how the director of bleak, savage, sardonic features such as Even Dwarves Started Small (1970) or Stroszek (1977) could have ever acclimatised himself to the compromises found in every scene of this movie.

The music is not as intrusive or manipulative as in many would-be popular epics, but it is still used to add emphasis where it is not necessary. Likewise, I’ve endured worse dialogue, but it’s impossible to disguise passages that have been lifted from volumes of correspondence and put in the mouths of characters. This even applies to a memorable piece of invective from Sir Mark Sykes, co-author of the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement, in which the British and French secretly divvied up the Ottoman Empire.

In a meeting between Churchill, Lawrence, Doughty-Wylie and himself, Sykes (Nick Waring) fulminates against Bell as: “a silly, chattering windbag of conceited gushing flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering ass.” In fact Sykes wrote these lines in a letter to his wife.

To add a little glamour to Bell’s love life, Herzog is willing to imply a sexual dimension that almost certainly didn’t exist. He exaggerates the liaison with Cadogan, and compresses the passionate, platonic relationship with Doughty-Wylie that stretched on for three agonising years, when the lovers were in their mid-forties.

Bell’s famous excursions into the desert where she charmed Druze warriors, Bedouin chiefs and other potentially hostile tribesmen, are treated in episodic fashion. Every few years she sets off on an adventure, which is bitterly opposed by Sykes and encouraged by Doughty-Wylie. This may be the simple truth, but it gives the narrative a plodding predictability.

Queen of the Desert represents a lost opportunity for product placements. Surely any brand of women’s skin cream would love to be associated with a complexion that can travel on a camel for months through burning sand-dunes and trackless wastes, and look as fresh as Nicole Kidman. It’s a small absurdity, but it shows how far Herzog has been willing to depart from reality in this account. He might have been better advised to do the film as a documentary in which Bell’s achievements could have been related with just as much sand and none of the soft-sell.

Queen of the Desert
Written & directed by Werner Herzog
Starring Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Robert Pattinson, Damian Lewis, Jay Abdo, Nick Waring, Holly Earl, David Calder
USA/Morocco, rated M, 128 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 4th June, 2016.