I saw Queen of the Desert pop up on the Netflix queue and thought to myself “how come I had never heard that there was a biopic of Gertrude Bell, that travel writer, diplomat, spy, archaeologist and all-around clever person?”
About ten minutes in, I said to myself “ah, this is why.”
Nicole Kidman is pretty good as Bell, and there are some fun additional performances by Robert Pattinson as T. E. Lawrence and Damien Lewis as Bell’s awkward love interest. James Franco appears early on as another love interest.
The problem with Queen of the Desert is that it’s not genuinely about anything. It’s just sort of a collection of facts and anecdotes about the life of Gertrude Bell, some with a point but others not so much. It’s not about Bell working to be accepted by her male colleagues, it’s not really about politics in the middle east, it’s not about the various exciting and adventurous things Bell did (she once nearly died in a mountain-climbing disaster, for instance), it’s just … not about anything.
And whatever it’s not about, it’s not about that in the slowest, dullest way possible. Every scene is played at three-quarter speed, with characters frequently restating the obvious and long, long, interminable pauses in the dialogue.
Can I just say that if you take someone who traveled the world, was partly responsible for the creation of modern-day Iraq, studied archaeology, etc., etc., and you choose to focus a huge amount of the attention on how she’s motivated by her tragic doomed love affair and yadda yadda, I feel like that’s a weird priority.
Things I’ve learned from this film:
- James Franco, God love him, cannot act while doing a British accent.
- He also cannot do a British accent.
- I think Werner Herzog, who also wrote the script, has maybe never talked to a person. There might be some other way to explain it, but I can’t think of one.
- Everybody likes to see people doing archaeology, but nobody cares about the actual archaeology part of it.
- You can explain the politics of installing the Hashemite monarchies in three minutes (kinda), but you can’t make an interesting plotline out of it in that length of time.
- I can in fact get tired of watching camels cross romantic vistas while reedy music plays in the background.
It’s really a shame that this movie is so samey and drab, because Gertrude Bell is a really interesting person who is both a pioneering archaeologist and an important figure in a pivotal moment in middle eastern history. But that’s the only thing Queen of the Desert has going for it.