Queen of the Desert (2015)
For many audiences, biographical period dramas are the most common medium for learning about the achievements of significant people in history. The bar for directors is not set high: just tell a true story, explain its significance and keep us engaged. It is for these reasons that the beautifully crafted Queen of the Desert (2015) is entertaining drama but a disappointing bio-pic. It commits the unpardonable sins of being repetitive, overly focused on its one shining star, and omitting to tell the story in ways that are useful for today.
Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman) was the female version of Lawrence of Arabia. High-born, well-educated and attractive, she was an adventure seeker who travelled widely across the Middle East and helped the British Empire negotiate lasting borders between desert warlords. The film traces her life from young adulthood to the many years she spent studying the literary and archaeological history of the region, culminating with her joining the British political class back home. The film focuses in particular on several camel-back expeditions into dangerous territories and each follows the same pattern: Bell and her local guides are intercepted by marauders to prevent her entry into anti-British territories and she charms her way out of danger. These episodes of confrontation are devoid of narrative urgency nor do they cohere into a bigger picture of historical importance. This makes the story feel superficial, while Kidman’s tendency towards melodrama undermines character development and insight into Bell’s persona.
Minute by minute, scene by scene, this film is visually beautiful. The camerawork often uses shallow depth of field to sharply separate shots of Bell from soft-focus panoramic desert backgrounds to give her an imperial or perhaps even saintly aura. Kidman repeatedly adopts classic poses with a mono-tonal benign smile reflecting love and knowledge of a region rich in harsh natural beauty. The two romances of Bell’s life are explored too briefly to explain their role in her real-life tragic ending, and frequent literary and poetic references feel overly melodramatic. This is far from a tautly directed or well-paced story. The movie never comes close to being a good bio-pic, thus losing the opportunity to enshrine Bell in the annals of feminist achievement. Despite its visual delights, the film feels strangely disconnected from the legend of its Queen.
Director: Werner Herzog
Stars: Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Robert Pattinson