Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert typifies the hypocrisy of female-centric narratives that nevertheless define women in relation to their men, only by the latter’s absence rather than presence. To go by Herzog’s telling, the British writer, explorer, and ambassador Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman) was driven to roam the Arabian Desert by a tragically abbreviated tryst with Henry Cadogan (James Franco), a Tehran embassy diplomat. Cadogan is presented by the film as being the first suitor who acknowledges Gertrude’s formidable intelligence and ambition, regarding her as a person rather than as an object for men to procure—a sentiment that Herzog only sporadically shares.
Throughout Queen of the Desert, Herzog relentlessly hammers two points that are in opposition as dramatized. Firstly, that Bell is her own woman, which is established in anachronistically hackneyed dialogue that suggests a Herzogian put-on only without the intentional humor (“For the first time in my life, I know who I am, my heart belongs to no one but the desert” and “The deeper I penetrate this mysterious labyrinth, the more I become known to myself”). And, secondly, that Bell is forever haunted by her romance with Cadogan, essentially estranged from men until engaging in flirtation with a married British major, Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis).
Bell never married, this much is true, but she had a variety of relationships with fascinating men, and lived a life that’s amazing for anyone of any age, let alone a woman of the early 1900s. So it’s inexplicable and regrettable that Herzog elevates Cadogan to the status of “the one,” rendering Bell as a spurned traditional woman with delusions of progressive grandeur by implication, which doesn’t scan with her life as a traveler and aesthete. As presented by Herzog in meet-cutes that wouldn’t pass muster in Twilight, Bell and Cadogan’s courtship suggests the overtures of two infatuated infants pitching their very first woo. For Franco, this pose isn’t shocking, as he’s made a career of positioning himself awkwardly and mock-earnestly in unconvincing period pieces, but for Kidman, who commits wholeheartedly to the material, these scenes are embarrassing and unseemly.
The film soon settles into a stultifying repetition: Bell meets a dangerous sheik and impresses him with her wiles and gumption, before then proceeding to check in with the British consulate, impressing them with her…wiles and gumption. Punctuating these reductive scenes are desert-traveling passages that, at the very least, viscerally establish to viewers the profound tedium of crossing flat and arid landscapes for months at a time. The process of Bell’s political maneuvering, of her negotiating with warring leaders previously thought untouchable, is entirely elided by Herzog, who favors shorthanded duets in which men instantly swoon over Bell, who’s engulfed in lighting so ludicrously soft that one can sometimes barely see her, inspiring longing for Josef von Sternberg’s comparatively realist filming of Marlene Dietrich.
Throughout Queen of the Desert’s narrative, there’s no sense of danger, of texture, or even of a rudimentary idea of what’s truly driving Bell. Lost love alone doesn’t drive someone to navigate the most dangerous regions on the planet. Herzog—and this is astonishing for the director of Aguirre, the Wrath of God—finds no irony in the journey of his protagonist, a bored, privileged Caucasian woman who becomes a “maker of kings” in a twist that embodies the historically heavy hand of European imperialism across the world. The film almost passive-aggressively refuses to have a point.
Herzog appears to be straining to impersonate his idea of classical studio craftsmanship. Bell’s story intersects with that of T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson), which unavoidably reminds the audience of Lawrence of Arabia—an association that does Queen of the Desert no favors. Herzog strives for the morally ambiguous and gorgeously erotic stateliness of David Lean’s film, and that sort of pageantry simply isn’t a part of his sensibility. Herzog fails to grasp the appeal of a Herzogian take on this material, which might emphasize the “ecstatic truth” of the desert, potentially salvaging this dry and cheesy camp atrocity with a sense of hallucinogenic grandeur. Instead, the filmmaker castrates his art in what is easily the nadir of his career.