QUEEN OF THE DESERT: biopic or romancing the sand?
It’s never a good sign when the scenery, that of both the landscape and the actors, are the best things about a movie. Unfortunately though, the story of Gertrude Bell, The Queen of the Desert, is given short shrift in this film that boils down a pretty lady floating up and over sand dunes, gaining admiration wherever she goes.
Gertrude Bell is absolutely a figure in history that deserves an epic film detailing her life, reviews of this film will inevitably draw parallels to Lawrence of Arabia (especially since T.E. Lawrence, played briefly but impressively by Robert Pattinson, pops up several times). Bell was born in England and educated at Oxford, traveled the world, climbed multiple mountains, spoke seven languages, served the British government in political and ambassadorial capacities, created both boundaries and maps in the Middle East and was respected by her British peers as well as the tribal leaders she worked with. How could a movie about this person be anything other than fascinating?
Wernor Herzog accomplishes it, however, leaving Nicole Kidman (Lion (2016), How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2017)) little to work with in giving Bell’s character any depth, any inspiration, or really any explanation of what motivated her to accomplish all that she did. Instead, we’re given heavy-handed exposition that Bell was plucky and independent from childhood, and everything else boils down to ill-fated romance. The film implies that Bell’s initial interest in the Middle East was sparked due to a love affair with Henry Cadogan, a diplomat she met while visiting her uncle in Tehran. Upon receiving news of his death, Bell mourns prettily and then returns to the desert to do…something…chin tilted resolutely, storming the sand castles with nerve and beauty as her only weapons.
Crisscrossing the dunes, mapping, exploring, finding love again and making friends with the natives takes up the remainder of the film, although the details are a bit vague. But essentially, Kidman’s Bell is a swan of the desert, a porcelain beauty who manages to keep her robes white in spite of dirty camels and occasional unexciting conflicts. She even takes a bathtub along for lovely sunset shots of her lounging dreamily in it, her faithful band of locals camping at a respectful distance. By the time she has met her second lover, an inconveniently-married British army officer, we’re already bored and wondering exactly what the point of this movie is: biopic or soap opera? Bell answers that question handily when she receives the news of the second lover’s death in a scene that seemed suspiciously reminiscent of Satine’s final act in Moulin Rouge…although she faints dramatically instead of dying. To be fair, it can be argued that Bell loved those who loved what she did…the desert…but it’s a disservice to the real Gertrude Bell that so much time is devoted to her love affairs instead of affairs of state.
As previously mentioned, this movie’s scenery is its strength. The sweeping panoramas of the desert, the bleached-out colors of the dusty structures, the enormous blue sky…it’s all gorgeous. Onto this eye-popping backdrop we add Kidman, who admirably tries to impart some depth into the role by combining her cool blonde beauty with charm (she charms her way out of an unwanted potential marriage, charms her way out of detention, charms her way across a forbidden territory, etc.), but beauty and charm only go so far. It truly is unfortunate, as a stronger base could have absolutely resulted in a female-led Lawrence of Arabia. No need to remake that classic, but the potential was wasted here to create a new one.