AFI Fest Review: Queen of the Desert is the Fitzcarraldo of My Reviews

A Werner Herzog movie can go either way, and there’s always hope that even a failure can be magnificent. It wasn’t promising to learn that the U.S. cut of Queen of the Desert would be shorter than the one screened in Berlin, so I already steeled myself for the latter variety. Unfortunately Queen of the Desert is the worst kind of bad. It’s just boring. It’s taken me so long to compose my thoughts, this review has become my own personal Fitzcarraldo.

Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman) was instrumental in mapping the Middle East and defining the regions we know today. I learned that from Wikipedia because in the movie I couldn’t figure out the significance of Bell going from sultan to sultan in the Sahara. She gives gifts to each sultan she meets but the extent of her diplomacy is left to the imagination.

The men in Bell’s life seem just as random. Henry Cadogen (James Franco) is an early love, but when he introduces himself, it sounds like Franco is saying “turducken.” He disappears so unceremoniously, we have to take the film’s word for it that Bell is heartbroken. They never had any chemistry.

Bell has a dalliance with married man Charles “Richard” Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) that continues to permeate her desert journey. So, was Gertrude Bell only defined by the men in her life? The suitors who gave her gifts and the sultans she sweet talked? Robert Pattinson is the only one who makes sense as T.E. Lawrence. At least it seems like he’s playing the historical figure, as little screen time as he has, and maybe paying homage to the famous biopic of his character.

It spans 23 years and no one ages. Granted, when it begins in 1898, Bell is much younger than Kidman. It’s suspension of disbelief, but could we not at least get a gray hair in 1920?

We get sweeping shots of the desert, but it’s digital and appears flat and lifeless, even when we see the wavy heat blur. Kidman’s sheer white bathing gown clings to her breast in what is surely a seductive shot out of context.

The U.S. cut fades to black a lot. Maybe that’s where they made cuts from the long version, but it only draws attention to itself. Why not just cut to the next scene? It only draws attention to the fact that wait, we’re fading to black already but we haven’t seen anything yet.

It’s an incompetent movie on a superficial level, but when Herzog’s politics become not so subtly apparent, it’s even more ridiculous. Churchill is portrayed as a buffoon, and a series of text epilogues confirms what Herzog really thinks. I’m all for filmmakers using art to forward their political agenda. Oliver Stone is great at it, and at its best the movie still works if you disagree with the politics. Here, the politics are an addendum to a mismanaged history lesson, so it fails to convey what Gertrude Bell did and it’s a polemic that seems to come out of nowhere.

Queen of the Desert is not Herzog’s Lawrence of Arabia, and it’s not even Fitzcarraldo in the desert. There’s no one clear task like dragging the boat. Since he can’t convey its own politics narratively, Herzog resorts to stating them blatantly in on screen text. Big name actors, costume drama and epic landscapes are not enough to make a historical biopic. It was such a compilation of nothing that I remained in bewilderment on the drive home, unable to express any thought other than “God dammit.” Maybe that’s why it took me so long to even approach this review. I can’t remember another time I had to describe nothing. I’m sure it’s happened, but that was the Fitzcarraldo of reactions.