Werner Herzog’s “Queen of the Desert” stars Nicole Kidman as Gertrude Bell and Robert Pattison as, in a winking turn, T.E. Lawrence. (Lena Herzog)
Filmmakers can be the victims of their own histories, and it’s tempting to knock “Queen of the Desert” for not being “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” or “Fitzcarraldo.” The movie, written and directed by Werner Herzog, was largely dismissed when it played at the Berlin Film Festival in 2015 and is only now opening in the United States.
Herzog has spent his career making movies about quixotic quests. When these films are at their finest, Herzog can seem as driven and half-mad as his characters. Like his heroes, he has plunged into the Amazon to face what he once called, in the documentary “Grizzly Man,” “the overwhelming indifference of nature.”
That makes him a natural fit to tell the life story of Gertrude Bell, the British adventurer, archaeologist and linguist who has been labeled the female Lawrence of Arabia.
Herzog’s aesthetic adventurousness also makes him a bit of a mismatch with the conventional way he has chosen to relay Bell’s exploits, which include attempts to make inroads with the Bedouins and the Druse and (eventually) advising the British on the carving up of the Middle East. Bell is embodied, in a commanding and versatile performance, by Nicole Kidman, who supplies a gravitas and emotional complexity worthy of the woman she plays.
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Unavoidably, the material puts Herzog on geographic and thematic territory previously charted by David Lean. (The heroine, like the protagonist of Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” is shown in the Nafud Desert, the site of “the sun’s anvil” in that great 1962 film.) T.E. Lawrence himself appears; he is played, in a winking turn, by Robert Pattinson.
The first half dwells on Bell’s romance with a junior diplomat (James Franco, surprisingly credible as a dashing Brit). In one of the few moments that smacks of true Herzogian weirdness, Franco’s character takes Bell to the top of a tower where human remains have been left and asks to kiss her in front of a vulture. By the time Bell’s affections turn to a married military officer (Damian Lewis), the movie has abandoned most of its eccentricities.
But if Herzog mostly seems content to follow Hollywood rules, there are respects in which he improves on them. He has cast Arab actors in Arab roles, a change from the practice in Lean’s era. And unlike Lean, he doesn’t sentimentalize the landscape, which is not to say that “Queen of the Desert” is an ugly film. Even the stodgiest biopic would be redeemed by Herzog’s eye. The shots that track Bell into her meetings with Arab leaders may have you catching your breath.
Wrath-of-god level? No. But explorers need to work with what they find.