Iconic German filmmaker Werner Herzog has directed QUEEN OF THE DESERT, a film about English explorer, writer, spy and archeologist Gertrude Bell. Australia’s own Nicole Kidman assays the lead role. Before digging into the movie itself, it may be useful to know more about the historical Bell.
She was born in 1868. Her family was wealthy and influential. Unusually for the era, she was educated at Oxford where she studied history, one of the few subjects allowed to women. She received a first class honours degree. After leaving Oxford, she traveled extensively. Bell was no early “glamper”. She went through Europe recording new paths and making first ascents as she conquered a number of mountains.
However, it was her travels in the Middle East that made her name. From her first visit to Persia in 1892, to Palestine and Syria from 1899 and through her many trips across the Arabian Peninsula in subsequent decades, she became knowledgeable about the peoples, languages, cultures and histories of this part of the world. Her many writings, including her books Persian Pictures (1894) and Syria: The Desert and The Sown (1907), contributed to the contemporary view of these places.
The British and a number of other European powers were circling this region in a predatory manner, waiting for the final death throes of the Ottoman Empire. The movie version of Bell is led to Persia not by politics, but by her desire to leave England and the contraints of British society. Her uncle is the British ambassador in Tehran. Bell lives there with her relatives and there she meets Henry Cadogan (James Franco) a civil servant whose unconventional views of life accord with her own.
The relationship between Bell and Cadogan does not run smoothly. Eventually, she takes to traveling the Arabian desert. There are camels for transport and Bell is on a kind of spiritual journey, but as much as I might want to be glib and describe this as a forerunner of Robyn Davidson’s TRACKS, this is where Bell met the Bedouin. Her time spent with different clans of these nomadic people is one of the central strands to the Gertrude Bell legend. This educated, upper-class English woman crossed a multitude of physical and cultural barriers to go where she did. And she fell in love with the desert and its people.
As the First World War a.k.a The Great War looms, Bell becomes involved with the British military. She takes on a number of advisory roles to Britain’s Arab Bureau. Her friend T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) works for the Bureau in a similar capacity. She is eventually given the title Oriental Secretary as recognition of the scope of her work. Her efforts led to the drawing of the borders of modern Jordan and Iraq.
Kidman does solid work as Bell. Although my first glance of Pattinson made me think of the character Beau Geste, his version of “Lawrence of Arabia” is rather good. Damian Lewis is fine as Bell’s love interest, Charles Doughty-Wylie. James Franco’s English accent has traces of Cary Grant about it. Although director Herzog has a dazzling variety of dramas and documentaries to his name, QUEEN OF THE DESERT seems to be a rather straight forward, Hollywood-style take on this fascinating character. Herzog’s approach to storytelling is usually unconventional, yet this movie obeys every convention of the historical biopic. The dialogue is also anachronistic through and through. If Bell actually told Lawrence he had “morphed” into his new role as a diplomat, I will cheerfully eat a fez. Or an ottoman.
QUEEN OF THE DESERT is a detailed chronicle of a fascinating life. It needed to be more freewheeling for Herzog fans to enjoy, but for history nerds like myself, there is much to see and appreciate. Running time is 128 minutes. (6/10)