Queen of the DesertRemember the great disaster movies of the 1970’s, films like The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, and Earthquake? The formula was simple: put as many stars as you could find in the path of a natural disaster and let God and Irwin Allen sort out the winners and losers. Credit Werner Herzog with resurrecting the genre. For his latest film, Queen of the Desert, Herzog collected a handful of household names, put them in a rickety vehicle, and crashed them over and over again.

The scope of the movie’s failure is proportional to its ambitions. With Queen of the Desert, Herzog sets his sights on David Lean’s masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, possibly the most successful and audacious biopic of all time, and, even more specifically, on the mythical figure at the center of that film, T.E. Lawrence. Herzog intends to overtake Lean by destroying Lawrence, and the instrument of destruction he selects is the life of Gertrude Bell, a fellow British Arabist and contemporary of Lawrence. By all accounts, Bell was extraordinary – a distinguished scholar, linguist, historian, archaeologist, explorer, and writer. She was also a spy for the British Army in the Middle East during the First World War and then an official with the Foreign Office with responsibilities for that part of the post-war world. She is credited with, and criticized for, the creation of modern Iraq.

Certainly, acknowledgements of her accomplishments have been scarce in comparison with the attention lavished on Lawrence, and Bell is more than worthy of a full-blown, old fashioned Hollywood hagiography. She also deserves better than what she gets in Queen of the Desert, where her sojourns into the arid wastelands of the Middle East are a response to failed love affairs. Her plan of action with each expedition is to simply ride out and wait to be captured by the local tribe. (It happens three times. At some point, you expect Mel Brooks and his Native American buddies from Blazing Saddles to show up and take her hostage.) Somehow, this continual surrender results in invaluable intelligence. Meanwhile, we see Lawrence as a foppish, sycophantic wannabe, playing handmaiden to the Queen.

Nicole Kidman stars as Bell and is in virtually every scene of the movie. Kidman here possesses timeless beauty, which is a bit of a problem as she is supposed to age as the story unwinds. Kidman is beautiful, yet strangely inert. She suppresses and smothers any hint of chemistry with any other member of the cast. That attribute is problematic in a film that revolves around Bell’s romantic relationships. Kidman is a tall drink of water (almost freakishly tall in some scenes), but she comes across as a runway model in a desert-themed fashion show. Co-star Robert Pattinson, who draws the unenviable task of portraying Lawrence in a hatchet job on the historical figure, fares worse. Pattinson gives cause to question once again his ceiling as an actor with an embarrassing performance. It would be cruel and pointless to compare his work to that of Peter O’Toole.

James Franco does no better as Bell’s first love, Third Secretary at the British Embassy to Persia, Henry Cadogan, but Franco, at least, has a couple of excuses for his ineptitude. One, he’s not a very good actor; and, two, he had no business being cast as either a British civil servant or as a love interest to Kidman, who has ten years and about four inches on him. Franco would be well advised to limit future film roles to playing opposite Seth Rogen, who possesses the narrowest acting range imaginable, but with whom it is easier to imagine a romantic liaison.

That leaves Damian Lewis among the big names, and he plays Major Charles Doughty-Wylie, the very married object of Bell’s affection in the post-Franco period of her life. The last time Lewis was in the Middle East, he ended up dangling from a crane at the end of Homeland Season 3. Here, he does slightly better than that and considerably better than Pattinson or Franco, by embracing the ridiculousness of the situation and the dialogue and transporting his sensibilities to those appropriate to the films of the late 1940’s and early 50’s, before wisely dying off camera.

Strangely, two minor characters, seen early in the film and only for a couple of scenes, are far and away the most engaging in the entire movie. Holly Earl is Florence Lascelles, the daughter of the British Ambassador to Persia. Earl is winsome as a young woman coming into her hormones. Father Frank (Mark Lewis Jones) is a rakish diplomat, presiding over an Embassy that tilts toward debauchery or so we are briefly, titillatingly led to believe. What a shame that we do not see more of the Lascelles family or that the energy they bring to the screen ends with their departure from the film.

Instead, we are left with the hollow work of director and screenwriter Herzog, who surrounded himself with an equal array of talent behind the camera to match the big names that sit atop the credits. His cinematographer of choice, Peter Zeitlinger, delivers stellar work. Michele Clapton’s costumes are perfect, and the production design of Ulrich Bergfelder is also flawless. No, the fault for this failure lies completely with Herzog. To say he should stick to documentaries is neither flippant nor unfair. Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams illustrate his mastery of that genre. His ability to frame and film landscapes are the most captivating part of Queen of the Desert.

Ultimately, we are left with a beautiful piece of nonsense, right down to the last preposterous shot of Kidman on the back of a camel and the last clunky line of dialogue which quotes the title as every bad film seems to find time and occasion to do.

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