German auteur Werner Herzog delivers a stately biopic in “Queen of the Desert,” which is straightforwardly conventional almost to the point of satire. From the obvious soundtrack to all the times star Nicole Kidman writes in her diary and her voiceover explains the plot to us, this true story of British explorer Gertrude Bell and her passion for the deserts of the Middle East is a perfectly nice film, but hardly what one expects from the director of “Grizzly Man.”
The film opens with Kidman as Gertrude Bell, a headstrong young woman whose parents, like all aristocratic, cinematic parents, are trying to get her married. They encourage her to hide her intellect to attract a man, and she says she won’t play dumb. Kidman is a beautiful woman, but at 49 she is difficult to accept as someone so much younger. After referring to several incidents from her (extremely distant) childhood, they relent to her pesky independent and intellectual nature and permit her to go abroad.
Soon she falls in love with diplomat James Franco, who I officially cannot take seriously. Their courtship takes them exploring the beautiful landscape and reciting poetry to one another; she has finally found a man worthy of her, but her parents do not agree.
His tragic death catapults her into a series of repetitive excursions into the desert in search of Bedouins and artifacts and whatnot. All the self-important male numbskulls she meets inquire why in God’s name she wants to traipse about out there, and you find yourself asking the same thing. It’s not clearly defined, and her flowery explanations are rather thin. Although she comes to find a purpose and eventually becomes a valuable advisor to the British, her reasoning has an “Eat, Pray, Love” vibe, and she even describes herself as a “woman who misses her man.”
“Queen of the Desert” is a lovely, beautifully shot and costumed, but dull film, and Kidman is undeniably good in it. She is every inch a queen, to be sure, and radiates intelligence, not to mention posture, in every scene. You feel like you’re watching a rote period film on television, but with an inexplicably star-powered cast. Robert Pattinson shows up as T. E. Lawrence, aka “Lawrence of Arabia”; his is one of many quietly well-played scenes with Kidman.
Damien Lewis plays another of the men worthy of Bell’s attention, and their star-crossed feelings have flashes of interest, only to give way to more swooning voiceovers, love letters read aloud and dreamy, drippy montages. The film trafficks heavily in traditional imagery and stock scenes — Herzog took a story of a revolutionary woman and made it stodgy and predictable.
The film isn’t bad, but I must admit longing for it to end. This is why people hate period pieces. On the other hand, if you’re an unabashed fan of the “Dear Diary” style of film set in a bygone era, and you just really want to watch such a film, or of you really like camels or Nicole Kidman, “Queen of the Desert” is serviceable, romantic and inoffensive.
“Queen of the Desert” is now playing at the AMC Mobile 16 and is also available to stream.
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