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Queen of the Desert: No one breaks a sweat in latest Werner Herzog extravaganza

Queen of the Desert. Written and directed by Werner Herzog. Starring Nicole Kidman, James Franco and Damien Lewis.
Damian Lewis and Nicole Kidman are featured performers in Werner Herzog's Queen of the Desert.

Queen of the Desert. Written and directed by Werner Herzog. Starring Nicole Kidman, James Franco and Damien Lewis. Rating: 4 (out of 10)

Werner Herzog has ventured to the frigid Taiga, Into the Abyss and Into the Inferno, deep within Paleolithic caves, and to an Antarctic outpost, not to mention the several mad journeys he has made into the jungle.

But the legendary director’s offering is uncharacteristically drab this time around, a film about the desert without any heat.  Queen of the Desert, which has been languishing in a different kind of dust somewhere since its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in 2015, stars Nicole Kidman as British adventurer Gertrude Bell, the woman who drew the boundaries for present-day Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Jordan under Winston Churchill.

But before that Gertrude was a young woman rendered unmarriable by her education at Oxford at the turn of the century. She begs her father to send her off somewhere – anywhere – and lands at the British Embassy in then-Teheran, Persia, where she rhapsodizes over the scents and sounds of her new home and quickly connects with British legation secretary Henry Cadogan (James Franco), who would be the first of two doomed love affairs.

Franco is both the worst and the best thing about the film. On the downside, his accent flips from Brit to midwesterner as soon as he espies a billiards table, he’s part of a glaring continuity blip early on, and he’s all-around unconvincing in the role. The one upside? He’s part of what could be called the film’s most romantic moment: after getting the heebie-jeebies at a Zoroastrian burial tower, Henry and Gertrude flee into the desert and share a kiss.

But Gertrude’s father (David Calder) disapproves the match – Henry is a reputed gambler – even after his daughter makes the long journey back to England to argue her point. She doesn’t so much argue, cry or rage as much as lie languidly and perfectly-framed at her father’s feet.

“My heart belongs to no one now but the desert,” Gertrude declares, and staunches her heartache by setting off to study the Bedouins, where she meets TE Lawrence (played by Robert Pattinson, looking not quite comfortable in the headdress) along the way. Though Lawrence (of Arabia) became the better-known explorer and political player, it is largely thought that Gertrude did far more to further relations in the Middle East.

Gertrude continues to travel, map and write about forbidden zones, much to the chagrin of the local British officials who are trying to stabilize the area as a world war brews. One of these officials is British consul Richard Doughty Wylie (Damien Lewis), a stuffed shirt who kisses Gertrude one day, a surprise to both her and us, since there was little evidence his passion beforehand. Alas, the consul is married; cue heartbreak number two.  

Herzog is a master with light and texture, and the Moroccan setting is breathtaking; it is the scenes with humans in them that lack conviction. Everything is dulled, and frequently shot through a filter, giving it a gauzy look. That tactic may help to convince the audience that Kidman isn’t twice the age Gertrude was when she started her journey, but it was the effect of rendering the narrative less interesting than it undoubtedly was.

Gertrude Bell evaded murder, induction into a harem, and imprisonment by several desert tribes and by the British. She was regarded as “the maker of kings” by the sheikhs and noble families who would become the leaders of Iraq and Jordan. Yet under Herzog’s overly solicitous treatment, despite traversing thousands of desert miles Gertrude never gets dusty and never breaks a sweat. It’s an epic letdown to fans of Herzog’s work and to his subject.