“Queen of the Desert” is quite possibly the oddest film of director Warner Herzog’s wildly idiosyncratic career.
A mash-up of woman’s picture, real-life biography and sweeping “Lawrence of Arabia” images, it stars Nicole Kidman as Gertrude Bell, a British adventuress, diplomat, archaeologist and feminist who became an expert on the Middle East in the years before World War I.
We first encounter our heroine in 1888. The daughter of a steel magnate, she’s being groomed for a fitting marriage.
“You will not scare the young men with your intelligence,” her mother warns, but Gertrude is having none of it. She’s too independent, too strong willed to endure simpering aristocratic society.
(Kidman, now 49, plays Bell from age 21 to 40. Remarkably, she pulls off the youthful Gertrude, thanks to great makeup and God-given bone structure.)
Her exasperated father finally agrees to let her join the British embassy in Teheran where she soon finds herself falling for Henry Cadogan (James Franco, struggling to maintain a Brit accent), a low-ranking staff member assigned as her escort. Henry’s prospects aren’t promising, but like Gertrude he loves the desert. And he’s not afraid of her independent streak.
Daddy, however, nixes this liaison, and a heartbroken Gertrude turns her back on romance, devoting herself to travels in the Middle East, crossing vast deserts with a handful of faithful local guides.
During her travels she runs across a young T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson), working on an archaeological dig at Petra in Jordan. Years away from his exploits among the Arab tribes in the Great War, Lawrence already wears the native costume that will become his trademark. He and Gertrude flirt innocently, but neither is looking for a relationship.
Over years, Gertrude is befriended by the Bedouin. She also finds a lover — platonic — in married British statesman Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damien Lewis).
Eventually, Gertrude is recognized by her government and, with Lawrence, is part of the commission that divides up the Middle East in the wake of the war.
Herzog, who in recent years has concentrated on modest documentaries, here gets the chance to make something resembling an epic. “Queen . . . ” is crawling with production values, from the wind-swept desert dunes to plush diplomatic interiors, starkly beautiful red-mud fortresses and evocative rock formations.
Problem is, the film feels more like a travelogue than a story with its own sense of momentum. Herzog’s screenplay relies heavily on narration taken from Bell’s journals. Her prose borders on the poetic, but one should always be dubious of a movie which requires this much narration to tell its tale.
For a while the film is able to distract us with its sensual elements. Peter Zeitlinger’s cinematography is first rate. Klaus Bidet’s musical score borrows so heavily from that of “Lawrence of Arabia” that he ought to be paying royalties to the estate of Maurice Jarre.
Ultimately though, “Queen . . . ” runs out of steam. Its romance — never a Herzog strength — feels stagey and indifferent, and many of the important things happening during this particular era take place offscreen. We only hear about them.
Let’s hope Herzog has gotten this out of his system.