'Queen of the Desert' review: Herzog, Kidman can't save melodrama from slipping into quicksand
"Even his failures are spectacular," the late Roger Ebert wrote of filmmaker Werner Herzog. It's clear "Queen of the Desert" (now playing in select cities and available via VOD) desperately wants to be a sweeping drama - but it is a grand failure that the acclaimed director and a cast of accomplished actors couldn't save from sinking into quicksand.
In short: The travels of British explorer and archaeologist Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman) as she explores the people and places of the Middle East in the years leading up to World War I.
On paper, the story of Gertrude Bell is an obvious winner. She was a renaissance woman who gained the trust of the people living in the Middle East, gained a genuine understanding of how the tribes of the region related and whose knowledge and research was used to delineate the modern borders of Jordan and Iraq.
But this film would have you believe she was just a woman who fell in love with one guy, wandered around a bit and fell in love with another guy. "Queen of the Desert" reduces the impressive traveler and writer to a woman who was unlucky at love.
"Queen" ostensibly chronicles the journeys of the woman who drew the modern map of the Middle East -- but meanders into the territory of clunky romance melodrama. Just how clunky?: this is a movie so tone deaf that it's first big romantic gesture takes place between two characters ... standing in front of a vulture pulling the last bits of meat off a dead body. How romantic.
The fleeting moments where Bell's bravery, intelligence and boldness get a chance to shine are undermined by plainly lazy storytelling. Whether it's one of the many bizarre, non-sequitur scenes that destroy anything resembling narrative flow (such as an utterly useless and inconsequential scene devoted to James Franco's character arguing about whether he should ride a horse - a scene that has zero impact on the rest of the story) or patently simple dialogue/exposition that borders on insulting. A much better film would find a way to convey that Bell has been confined, against her will, for an extended period of time -- but "Queen" settles for the straightforward "I have been a prisoner here for three weeks now" line of dialogue to tell the audience what is happening. These just a few examples of the many choices where "Queen" took the easy way out rather than actually making an attempt to tell a story with any brains or grace.
Like the protagonist herself, the overall film meanders without a clear goal in mind. There's no clear story trajectory - it's merely a aimless tale of one explorer's random wanderings. "Queen" chronicles her vaguely intriguing interactions with Middle East tribes and just clunks to an ending -- an unsatisfying conclusion which is, surprise, intimately rooted in her love life (with some rushed historical context thrown in at the last minute.)
Herzog's film is a series of ham-handed romances shoehorned into what should be a straightforward story. Bell's story is compelling without the needless, silly romance melodrama - her greatest contributions to history are crammed into the last few minutes of the film.
Perhaps the only silver lining of "Queen of the Desert" is the possibility that it may convince people to learn more about this overlooked and important historical figure - and perhaps it will inspire someone to write a film truly worthy of the Queen of the Desert.
Final verdict: This historical character - whose actions impacted history for the next 100 years - deserves a much better than this wannabe sweeping epic. This is a film more preoccupied with the love life of an entitled woman than the actual accomplishments of an influential scholar.
(Review originally viewed during AFI FEST 2015) "Queen of the Desert" is now playing in select cities and available via VOD. This dramatic biopic is rated PG-13 for brief nudity and some thematic elements and has a running time of 128 minutes.