Queen of the Desert (2015) Blu-Ray REVIEW

Written and directed by Werner Herzog, Queen of the Desert, released theatrically in 2015 but just now out on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, explores familiar territory for the director, but the thin screenplay doesn’t keep things interesting enough to support those ideas.

Typical Herzog themes of barrenness and loneliness, a dangerous and indifferent world where humans are an accident of evolution are here in abundance, but there’s a very Hollywood gloss about the thing, and Herzog seems perplexed by women, as evidenced by the emphasis on the film’s love story. Naturally, an historical drama that comes in at just over two hours needs a lot of paring down on details if it’s going to make any narrative sense, but it’s odd that romance takes up the bulk of a movie about real-life explorer, archaeologist, writer, and diplomat Gertrude Bell, a woman who was clearly motivated more by her search for adventure than her relationship with men. Unfortunately, this is quite the stilted historical drama.

Bell (Nicole Kidman) is a very interesting real-life personality who becomes a caricature in Herzog’s hands. According to the film, she’s driven to her adventures as a sort of quest to find herself after the death of her lover Henry Cadogan (James Franco) while working at the British Embassy in Tehran. Though she was instrumental in the creation of the modern state of Iraq and founded their national museum, you wouldn’t really know that except for a brief postscript after the film’s final shot. She was quite a pioneering woman and perhaps even proto-feminist, and yet Herzog is obsessed with her romantic life. Which is not to say that this isn’t important, but here it’s given altogether too much weight.

Kidman is always worth watching, I think, but her performance here is particularly striking. She moves flawlessly from an inexperienced young woman in her 20’s to a mature adventurer and writer in her 40’s. She imparts a believability that frankly the script didn’t deserve. The other actors are pretty okay or maybe not bad, but no one besides Kidman is particularly memorable.

Robert Pattinson is a charisma vacuum: he’s always struck me as a very stiff actor and I really don’t get his appeal. I wonder if it was possible to have found a worse actor to play T.E. Lawrence, the Lawrence of Arabia himself. Pattinson mostly smiles shyly and delivers lines as if he was a puppet. James Franco isn’t bad, but he doesn’t make for a very convincing British gentleman. I can’t help but find Damian Lewis utterly charming in everything I’ve seen him in, and this film was no exception.

Cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger’s camera adores the desert scenery, and even through the gloss, it’s all eerily beautiful. Herzog is clearly in love with the vastness, the decay, the ruins of old castles. This is typical for him, of course. He absolutely must show how small and insignificant humans are. For some reason, though, perhaps because of the glossiness I noted earlier, it all feels too polished. If this is Herzog finally trying to get in touch with his feminine side, then I certainly applaud the effort, if not the execution.

To give Herzog a bit of credit here, he does attempt to steer our attention to Bell’s independence, inner strength and bravery, especially as she interacts with powerful men who don’t hold women in very high regard, but it’s all too little too late. If only this part of the narrative wasn’t subsumed by two love stories, we might have had a vastly more compelling film. I don’t think I’ve ever been bored with a Herzog movie before, but with around 45 minutes to go, I was more or less disengaged, tuned out. The movie eventually becomes a sort of rich woman’s sightseeing tour, which was definitely not what Bell was about. There was a very exciting movie somewhere in all of this, but Herzog focuses on the most uninteresting stuff. And that’s too bad.

Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray is bare-bones, with no special features except a theatrical trailer.

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