Gertrude Bell is not a name with which many in the West are familiar, but the writer, traveler, archaeologist and occasional spy has had a profound effect on the shaping of the modern Middle East. Perhaps it was unnecessary to create a biopic of her life; her own publishings from her unprecedented travels through the deserts of the region in the early 20th century illustrate, with clarity, that this Oxford-educated woman was more familiar with the inner workings of the tribal system than anyone else in the British Empire was.
Nonetheless, celebrated director Werner Herzog set out to immortalize Bell’s life with his own grand-scale production a la “Lawrence of Arabia” — in fact, T.E. Lawrence makes several short appearances in the film, played by a fairly silly-looking keffiyeh-clad Robert Pattinson. But what Herzog produces, in spite of the quiet determination Nicole Kidman brings to Bell’s character, feels more like an ‘80s made-for-TV movie.
The opening scenes of the film, set in England where a young Gertrude is sick of the stuffiness and begs her father to let her explore the world, seem like nothing more than lip service to the woman’s gumption and take-no-shit attitude toward men. That attitude didn’t disappear when she traveled to the Middle East and would be much better displayed in action rather than words.
In fact, Herzog does something worse than this: He opens with 10 minutes of dialogue about how Gertrude needs no man and then sends her to Tehran where, presumably, her adventure is to begin. But when she is assigned a guardian (a wooden and stiff James Franco), a cliché-drenched romance develops out of nowhere. And when this romance doesn’t work out, Herzog somehow manages to frame the rest of Bell’s life through the lens of this failed love. Loss is real, but it only takes five minutes of reading Bell’s writing to know that she was in no way defined by her relationships with men.
As the film enters its middle stretch, it chronicles several of Bell’s expeditions into the deserts but does little to properly express the passage of years, leaving each expedition feeling like a mirror of the previous. There’s something insidiously awful about the way Herzog treats these scenes — we get little to no content demonstrating the way Bell comes to truly understand the incredibly complicated geopolitical workings of the tribes she visits, and her motivations never deviate beyond a vague desire for adventure and learning. The character we see on screen feels like a tourist.
Ironically, the only real strength of the film is Robert Pattinson in the few scenes he appears in, despite the silliness of his garb — to be fair, the actual T.E. Lawrence looked pretty foolish in a keffiyeh too. Pattinson brings a cocky, British assuredness to the character, which leaves him both vaguely likeable and disagreeable simultaneously, a nuance lacking in all the other characters’ paint-by-numbers personalities. And Lawrence is the only character in the film with whom Bell has any chemistry that, thankfully, isn’t shoehorned into romance.
Late in the film, now post-WWI, British leaders sit around a map of the Middle East as Winston Churchill asks how they should carve up the land. Various officials — many of whom attempted to stop Gertrude Bell from making her early expeditions — deliberate on the matter until Churchill slams a hand and asks, “Who knows best about tribes? Lineages, affiliations, rivalries? Who knows best about Bedouin tribes? Who’s going to rule over all this? We are talking to future kings: Who knows the candidates?” It’s T.E. Lawrence, who we’ve secretly been missing for the second half of the film, who answers. “The woman. Gertrude Bell.”
It’s the only time the film addresses the true gravity of Bell’s influence, and it’s shoehorned against a scene of her writing in her journal, lamenting, “It’s as if love is not meant for me …” Gertrude Bell’s life was infinitely more interesting than this film makes it out to be, and really, really, really doesn’t need to be defined by her romantic relationships. Reading a single paragraph of her writing is more interesting and informative than anything “Queen of the Desert” provides.
“Queen of the Desert” opens this Friday at AMC Deer Valley 16.