“Queen of the Desert” is a sweeping historical epic about a trailblazing aristocratic English woman named Gertrude Bell.
At the beginning of the 20th century, she struck out on her own to explore the uncharted lands of the Middle East. So successful was she over the next 20 years that none other than Winston Churchill called upon her to help draw up the national boundaries of an emerging Middle East after the devastation of World War l.
Played exceptionally well by Nicole Kidman, Bell is a brilliant and headstrong Oxford scholar whose passion and intellectual curiosity is stifled by the societal strictures of Victorian and Edwardian England. She convinces her father to dispatch her to the British consul’s office in Tehran, Persia. And from there she sets out to explore grand swaths of the Saharan desert and Arabia.
“For the first time, I know who I am. My heart belongs to no one but the desert.”
A trained archaeologist and cartographer and something of a fledgling sociologist, Bell does most of her work over the objections of the British Imperial Army.
“This little venture of yours is counterproductive and it is dangerous.”
“You have no power to stop me,” the Queen responds.
During her journeys, she finds a kindred spirit in T. E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia. Bell and Lawrence seem cut from the same cloth and much of “Queen of the Desert” seems deliberately reminiscent of the David Lean classic film.
But as gorgeous and sweeping as “Queen of the Desert” often is, it’s also surprisingly stodgy, especially surprising given that its director is the legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog. Although more recently known for his prowess as a documentarian (Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams), Herzog first shot to international fame with exuberant narrative films about maniacal dreamers (“Aguirre, Wrath of God,” “Fitzcarraldo.”)
Gertrude Bell could very easily be another of his driven visionaries but “Queen of the Desert” is oddly detached. It’s as if Herzog has been infected by the stereotypical British reserve that so stultified Bell herself in her homeland. We may marvel at Bell’s drive and fearlessness, but the film doesn’t try to understand it.
The movie keeps a respectful and admiring distance. A little too deferential, for my tastes, but fitting, I suppose, for a Queen.