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Film Review: Queen of the Desert

Film Review Feb 6, 2023

by Vic Neptune

Gertrude Bell (1868–1926) was an industrialist’s Oxford-educated daughter who traveled extensively in the Middle East. In director Werner Herzog’s 2015 film, Queen of the Desert, she’s played by Nicole Kidman. A restless young woman yearning for adventure and new encounters with foreign cultures, she’s fortunate in having a father willing to send her to stay for a time at the British Embassy in Tehran. There, she encounters Persian poetry and Henry Cadogan (James Franco), a minor bureaucrat given the task—that isn’t a task—of spending lots of time with her. She’s vivacious, curious, susceptible to falling in love with cultures other than her own, as if living anew past lives spent in desert locations.

Her relationship with Henry deepens, he asks her to marry him, she accepts, her father puts his foot down and says no. While in England for a visit she receives word of Henry’s death. Devastated, she journeys to the British-controlled parts of the Middle East, commencing years of travel, visiting archaeological sites, taking pictures, interacting with Bedouins, riding camels along with her Arab guides. Her will to continue after her beloved’s death seems to be linked to her growing fascination for the desert and its solitude.

Her explorations lead the British authorities in Amman to seek her help as a spy against Britain’s adversary, the Ottoman Empire. Her refusal to accept this assignment, in keeping with her independent spirit, shows how dedicated she is to the culture, customs, poetry, music, of those desert inhabitants looked down upon by British authorities. At the same time, T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) has gone from archaeology to bringing Arabs into the war against the Ottoman Empire and Germany. David Lean’s epic, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), depicts his life much more fully, with a masterful performance by Peter O’Toole. Robert Pattinson’s Lawrence plays just a small role in the film, yet his presence hints at larger activities (World War One) surrounding Gertrude. She can’t do what she loves without running into British Empire interests. Still, she possesses a natural diplomatic skill with the Bedouins, Druze, and other Arabs she encounters throughout the film, a kind of T.E. Lawrence, but without the latter’s violence.

A fine actress, Nicole Kidman’s performance is solid throughout, but what drew me to this film the most is Werner Herzog’s artistry with amazing images. Herzog once spoke about what he calls “the voodoo of locations.” He’s made films in the Amazon rainforest (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and Fitzcarraldo), Wisconsin (Stroszek), a documentary in Kuwait about the men who put out the oil fires after the Gulf War (Lessons of Darkness), the Australian Outback (Where the Green Ants Dream) among many other locations.

“I direct landscapes,” he said.

In Queen of the Desert (shot in Jordan and Morocco) it’s blowing sand, dunes, oases, ancient cities. If the film meanders, it’s due perhaps to the stately motion of Gertrude Bell’s journeys, herself perched some eight to ten feet above the ground on a camel, journeying sometimes aimlessly, eager to meet the people no one in the outside world knows much about.

Her self-appointed mission, one of peace and friendship, seems like a healthy and positive alternative to the methods used by empires, including the American, as they seek dominance through coercion, threats, coups, invasions, and bombings.

Gertrude Bell sought to represent only herself. Fleeing a conventional life, she replaced the heartbreak of her loss of her Henry with a full embrace of a wilderness that spoke her soul’s language.

Queen of the Desert
Director: Werner Herzog
Screenplay: Werner Herzog
Stars: Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Damian Lew-
is, Jay Abdo, Robert Pattinson
Release Date: February 6th, 2015 (Berlin), April
14, 2017
Running Time: 128 minutes