During a press conference for his new film Queen of the Desert, which premiered at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival, Werner Herzog announced, “I should have done films about female characters from much, much earlier on.” But Herzog’s attempt to bring to screen the life of Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman) unfortunately falls flat on its face.
Bell was a woman of many talents: a writer, a traveller and a political officer for the British Empire. She was responsible for the formation of major parts of the Middle East, especially the modern state of Iraq. The Arabs gave her quite a lot of respect and locals referred to her as ‘al-Khatun’. Yet, not many people knew about her. A friend of TE Lawrence, Bell didn’t even feature in David Lean’s epic film Lawrence of Arabia.
It is therefore fantastic that Herzog, who is usually known for his pictures of power-hungry madmen, has made a film on Bell’s life. But sadly the main issue with Queen of the Desert is that the movie is less about her life and more about the two affairs she had, one with a British diplomat called Henry Cadogan (James Franco) and the other with Lieutenant Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis). Additionally, the emotional scenes are fraught with tension, albeit, not in a good way.
There’s perhaps a reason why Herzog has never directed films about female icons. It seems he doesn’t know how to portray them. Depicting romance isn’t one of Herzog’s strengths either as he is after all the man who ate his shoe after losing a bet. Also, it doesn’t help that the film is awfully miscast. Kidman does a good job, but she doesn’t resemble the character at all. Neither does Franco, who has the most unconvincing British accent in the film. Robert Pattinson stars in a cameo as TE Lawrence and while he has some fun in the role, his presence serves no real purpose.
For a biopic, the movie is too conventional and very plain. The characters are one-dimensional and seem to have no flaws. After Cadogan’s death, Bell decides never to love another man, even when Doughty-Wylie makes advances towards her. But since nobody is really interested in the Cadogan-Bell affair, the movie tends to fare poorly with audiences wanting a glimpse of the incredible life of Bell.
In the past few years, Herzog has mastered the art of making documentaries. While the material does not do justice to a feature film, it would have been sufficient for a documentary instead. Every master stumbles once in a while — Queen of the Desert is perhaps one such example of a misstep by an otherwise great director.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 15th, 2015.
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