Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was an extraordinary figure by any standards. She was an intrepid English traveler, scholar, and orientalist, who traversed the deserts of The Middle East at huge personal risk – at a time when a woman’s place was supposedly in the home – and whose knowledge and shrewd insights exerted a major influence on English foreign policy. Throw in the fact that Queen Of The Desert was directed by Werner Herzog, one of the giants of world cinema, and expectations soar. So it’s a considerable disappointment that, while perfectly competently made, Queen Of The Desert is actually rather flat, wooden, and Mills & Boon schmaltzy.
Much of the focus here is on the romantic involvements or preoccupations of Bell (Nicole Kidman), which could have been dramatically engaging in themselves but simply aren’t. First, there’s the English diplomat, Henry Cadogan (James Franco), and later the British army major, Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damien Lewis). Inevitably, neither of these is anywhere near as interesting as T.E. Lawrence, who’s played well enough by Robert Pattinson. Unfortunately, it’s a very small role, while the central one of Bell – who was herself a sort of female Lawrence of Arabia – is never properly “unpacked” in a way that explains her intense motivation and drive. The story just meanders along without any propulsion, changing locations from Iran to Syria and Egypt, and covering different stages in the decline of The Ottoman Empire before, during, and after WW1. Tribal conflicts, tumultuous events, and the Arabs themselves are almost relegated to the level of incidental backdrops. The one substantial thing Queen Of The Desert has going for it is Peter Zeitlinger’s cinematography: it’s exquisitely beautiful. But it’s not enough.