On Werner Herzog's Queen of the Desert

It’s fascinating to see just how universally reviled Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert has become — some have called it the director’s worst film ever, others point out a rose-tinted exotic romance is entirely out of character for the often envelope-pushing director. As far as I’m concerned, coming to the film nearly a year and a half after its Berlinale premiere and after reading all the howling reviews, Queen of the Desert does come up as a very minor Herzog, but one in keeping with the director’s themes and interests.

Based on the real-life story of early 20th century British adventuress Gertrude Lowthian Bell, a woman who measured herself with the stiff-upper-lip chauvinism of the British Empire and became central to its Eastern politics before dying in 1926, Queen of the Desert is all about the quest for ecstatic truth that is at the heart of the director’s work. The curious, restless, corset-busting Gertrude seeks her own ecstatic truth in the sands of the desert, in the man-vs.-Nature extremes Mr Herzog himself is known for chasing. But here, that search takes the shape of a sweeping colonial romance centred around the men in Gertrude’s life — minor diplomat Henry Cadogan (a horribly miscast James Franco), Lawrence of Arabia himself (a raffish Robert Pattinson), officer Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) — and that puts the film somewhere between Lawrence of Arabia and The English Patient.

That derivativeness is the key surprise and the key problem: Gertrude is certainly no traditional British Edwardian stay-at-home socialite, and Nicole Kidman plays her as a free-spirited, strong woman, a leader of men if you will, whose gutsiness and take-charge attitude are a liability in society but become an advantage in the desert. This Gertrude is a modern woman whose mere presence is a lightning rod, and the casting of Ms Kidman is perfectly judged, as is her performance of elegant, icy steeliness. But despite the poise, the confidence emanating both from Ms Kidman and Mr Herzog’s view of her, there’s no reason to wrap it up in a sand-colored box of chocolates underlined by Klaus Badelt’s horrendously treacly, sub-Maurice Jarre score — and in that bland smooth derivativeness, coming from a director better known for his angular, more jarring propositions, are contained the shortcomings of this handsome presentation.

Maybe Mr Herzog wanted the prettiness of the Morocco and Jordan locations to make Ms Kidman’s strength stand out even more, but he seems to have become so caught up in the romance of the colonial exploration that he succumbs to the ecstasy of the desert landscapes and of the spectacular vistas a bit too quick and a bit too easily. In so doing, he seems to overlook his own script’s problems — its fall into the episodic, a disconnected succession of setpieces suggesting a longer piece brutally hacked down or forced to fit a standard. All of this is somewhat inexplicable if you realise Mr Herzog brought in his usual team of DP Peter Zeitlinger and editor Joe Bini — and you’d never expect them to do “standard”.

It would, nevertheless, be unfair to not point out that, as minor as Queen of the Desert may be, there are still pleasures to be found in it — his way to keep the camera constantly moving, on its feet, almost as if it were being windswept like the sands of the desert, or as if it mirrored Gertrude’s own restlessness, always in motion. And I can’t help but think that this film that seems so out of character may very well be Mr Herzog experimenting deliberately, to see if he could pull off a “commercial” project. At any rate, it’s fun to think so — and the director is certainly contrary enough to attempt it.

US, 2014, 128 min; CAST Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Damian Lewis, Jay Abdo, Robert Pattinson; DIR/SCR Werner Herzog; DP Peter Zeitlinger; MUS Klaus Badelt; PROD DES Ulrich Bergfelder; COST DES Michele Clapton; ED Joe Bini; PROD Nick Raslan, Michael Benaroya, Cassian Elwes; Benaroya Pictures and Elevated Films in association with 120dB Films, Sierra Affinity and Palmyra Films


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