Werner Herzog has deservedly earned a reputation for his talents as a filmmaker. When he creates something great, whether in fiction or documentary form, it’s truly great. When he creates something that’s not, it’s usually at least interesting. That’s what makes Queen of the Desert so unusual: it takes an interesting subject and sucks most of the life out of it.
Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman) is an English writer who travels through the Middle East in the early 20th century, exploring and becoming uniquely positioned as a diplomat of sorts in the region. She manages to earn the respect of British officials, as well as different tribal leaders in the Middle East. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Bell even has a significant role in restructuring the region after World War I.
To Herzog’s credit, the film looks good. There’s plenty of detail to sell what period of time in which this takes place. But there’s not a ton of life to what’s going on. Queen of the Desert comes across like something Miramax would have used as Oscar bait in the 1990s, but without the spark that actually led to them claiming multiple Oscars for Best Picture during that decade.
If anything, the only sign of real life in this film comes from Kidman’s performance, which works to add dimensions to her character. That angling for a fully-formed character seems to be more Kidman’s work than Herzog’s, who saddles her with a long-lost lover (James Franco) that seems to be her main hangup. Considering what Bell did with her life, making that a primary focus is disappointing, and it only adds to the feeling that Queen of the Desert could have done better than what we’re seeing now.