Monday, May 23, 2016

All That Desert Allows

Queen of the Desert (2015) - Herzog
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Seeking freedom and solitude is the driving force that attracted Gertrude Bell, a learned English woman from a well to do family who became largely responsible for divving up the Middle East. Bell could easily be made as the first proto-feminist of her kind way before Dora the Explorer. Oddly enough, despite it being a Werner Herzog film, Queen of the Desert is a weepy melodrama most of the time, dangerously treading Douglas Sirk territory. Surely, there are some stunning vistas of the desert and camels and ancient citadels made of mud and underground rivers and salt crusted earth and all that too in true Herzogian fashion. Not enough though. It plays out more like Love Affairs of Gertrude Bell, starring Nicole Kidman.

Bell (played by Kidman, radiantly photographed), an amateur archeologist whose short affair with Cadogan (James Franco), a gentle, lower ranking diplomat at the British embassy in Bagdad and his love fueled suicide leaves her men/love weary and makes her devote herself deeper into the desert, despite objections from British army men. She builds up a reputation as a foreigner who understands the intricate political/cultural landscapes in the desert, fully taking advantages of being a white woman in a male dominant world. She stacks up admirers, including many tribal leaders, T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson), then a young archeologist, and Major Doughty-Wiley (Damian Lewis), a married army man stationed in Damascus. A romance blooms between Bell and the Major and she starts writing correspondences with him, fully knowing he won't leave his unhappy marriage, and so on.

Queen of the Desert is a perfectly respectable, largely entertaining film. James Franco's I'm a puppy about to die performance nor a Bambi outside the window didn't bother me too much. I'm just disappointed that it is a very un-Herzogian film. We are obviously not expecting some dry treatise on a historical figure nor a high melodrama from him. Kidman's very coquettish and alluring despite her age, but doesn't really have the balls to play a determined, strong willed woman (Charlize Theron might have been a better choice). And it's missing that audacity, that search for ecstatic truth the director is usually known for.