Berlinale: Queen of the Desert

Queen of Desert
Directed by Werner Herzog
Starring Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Damian Lewis and Robert Pattinson as Lawrence of Arabia

by Joanna Orland

Queen of the Desert tells the story of Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman), a traveler, poet, archaeologist, spy and eventual politician who played a major role in establishing the modern states of Jordan and Iraq. Bell is portrayed as the female “Lawrence of Arabia”, as obviously men are far more important in the grand scheme of things.

Gertrude Bell is a strong-willed woman who spends her days exploring the desert and developing much admiration for its landscape and people. In reality she was a huge influence on the politics of the Middle East as she utilized her travel perspectives and relationships to moderate relations between the British and the Arabs, who remember her with some form of affection. If you visit her Wikipedia page, you can read her long list of accomplishments and adventures – she is an excellent role model for female empowerment and not anywhere in her biography does it list the men with whom she was romantically involved. But director Werner Herzog has taken a feminist subject and made an anti-feminist movie with Queen of the Desert.

Herzog depicts Bell as a whiny lovesick lady who gets by on her good looks and charm. Sure, there is mention of her intelligence, but none of it is on display. Instead she falls for the charms of James Franco playing an Englishman less convincingly than Keanu Reeves in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Damian Lewis who plays a married British soldier willing to leave his wife for Gertie. Her heartache over losing these men seems to be her main motive for her adventures, as why else would a woman want to better herself, if not for a man or the loss of one?

Not only is it offensive to focus so much on Bell’s love life rather than her accomplishments, but her love stories aren’t even remotely engaging. Herzog has said that with a film so prominently about relationships, it’s the chemistry between the actors that makes or breaks the film. Well this film is irreparable. It’s like Franco is acting in a room by himself against a green screen and CGIed into the film in post production.  He makes no eye contact with Kidman or the camera, completely disengaged from anything except trying to pretend to be English. Laughably so. Yes, the audience laughed. Lewis and Kidman are even worse as I didn’t even realize that it was supposed to have been romantic until they literally said so using words. This is a film with zero chemistry – enter Robert Pattinson as Lawrence of Arabia.

Again, it was like he was acting in a room by himself, but Pattinson as T.E. Lawrence was single-handedly the funniest thing I’ve seen on screen this year. The audience burst into uproarious laughter on the first shot of him on screen in Lawrence garb – he hadn’t yet muttered a word. I don’t know what the thought was behind this casting choice, but oh my god, it got a bigger laugh than James Franco speaking the Queen’s English.

Werner Herzog is very proud of this work and his focus on a female-fronted story.  “I should have done films about female characters much earlier in my life. I’m glad that it happened and I shall continue,” said Herzog at the Berlinale 2015 press conference.  Werner buddy – please do yourself and all of us a favour – don’t.  While there is a huge need for strong female-fronted films, you are not the one to lead this movement.  You cannot write women, especially if all they do is long for horrible sappy men.  My entire being is offended by this effort.

If you want the true inspirational and feminist story of Gertrude Bell, read a book. If you want a sprawling whiny mess that sets feminism back to 1914 (featuring some genuinely hilarious moments), then Queen of the Desert is for you.


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