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With: Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Damian Lewis, Robert Pattinson, Jay Abdo, Jenny Agutter, David Calder, Christopher Fulford
Written by: Werner Herzog
Directed by: Werner Herzog
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief nudity and some thematic elements
Running Time: 110
Date: 04/07/2017

Queen of the Desert (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Stinker Bell

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's rather confounding to imagine that one of the world's boldest, most curious filmmakers could take a bold, curious subject like Gertrude Bell and make such a dull, pretty, inert movie about her.

In Queen of the Desert, Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman) lives in England near the turn of the 20th century and has received an excellent education at Oxford; her parents wish her to marry, but she wants to see the world. She begins in Iran, where she meets the poetry-loving James Franco (Henry Cadogan) and falls in love.

Jilted by him, she dedicates herself to exploring the middle east, learning language, writing, braving danger, and eventually becoming a kind of diplomat. She meets T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) and nearly has an affair with army officer Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis), and eventually helps Winston Churchill in drawing the borders between Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. She never married, but remains a hero to many.

Directed by Werner Herzog, Queen of the Desert sat, unreleased, for two years after initial poor notices, and it's easy to see why. In spite of the talented cast, Herzog's great eye for outdoor compositions, lush widescreen cinematography, and a dreamy score — perhaps in an effort to recall the story's close cousin, Lawrence of Arabia — the movie simply does not move.

Bell is painted as a fearless, endlessly curious woman, and it's difficult not to admire her, but aside from getting her heart broken by two clueless men, not much of consequence happens to her from scene to scene. In one sequence, she's held prisoner for several weeks at the whim of an Emir, but she doesn't look any the worse for wear after she gives him a withering comment and walks out.

Many scenes are set up — in one, she receives a magnificent "stolen" horse as a gift — and dropped (she trades it for camels, offscreen, with no drama or consequences). If anything, this is a huge disappointment; perhaps someday, Ms. Bell will receive a movie worthy of her legacy.

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