Review: ‘Queen Of The Desert’ Isn’t Just Offensive Cliche, It Fails The Real Woman It’s About

Why are we still making films like this?

Werner Herzog is the German auteur who once ate his own shoe after losing a bet with director Errol Morris. His filmmaking advice includes: “Carry bolt cutters everywhere”, “thwart institutional cowardice” and “take revenge if need be”. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert once said of Herzog: “he has never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons or uninteresting. Even his failures are spectacular.”

But Ebert didn’t live to see Queen of the Desert: a completely vapid and unconvincing historical biopic released last week. Its melodrama is stodgy, its dialogue laugh-out-loud corny and its politics uncomfortably dated. I’m astounded that a director as idiosyncratic as Herzog could have made it.

Bell Of Arabia

Gertrude Bell (played in the film by Nicole Kidman) was a brilliant, intrepid English archaeologist, writer and diplomat who travelled widely throughout the Middle East, and spoke fluent Arabic, Persian, French and German, plus some Italian and Turkish. At her death in 1926, Bell was the region’s most powerful woman, and as this film’s closing statement solemnly explains, she was “one of the few representatives of His Majesty’s Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection”.

Because of all this, her extraordinary life is ripe for an impressionistic, formally adventurous biopic, full of Herzog’s trademark tropes: dream sequences, flashbacks, blurred documentary/fiction boundaries and enigmatic symbolism. Instead, bewilderingly, Herzog favours the elegant, mannered spectacle found in old-fashioned ‘biopics of empire’ such as Lawrence of Arabia and Gandhi, or colonial melodramas including Out of Africa, A Passage to India and even The English Patient.

The film follows Bell from 1892, when she gets her first taste of Middle Eastern culture while visiting her uncle (Mark Lewis Jones) in Tehran as a peppy Oxford graduate, to the aftermath of World War I, as she promises the brothers Prince Prince Adullah and Prince Faisal that they will each rule their own kingdom. In between, there’s a lot of widescreen camel riding in silky headscarves, and thoughtful gazing into the middle distance.

Everything and everyone in this film is so locked into dreary cliché that I yearned for T.E. Lawrence (played here, drolly, by Robert Pattinson) to derail its train. It’s chockers with the kind of howlingly expository dialogue lampooned in satires of prestige historical explorer epics. (“You will not stir up conflict with the Bedouins; they are feuding amongst themselves!”). Meanwhile, preposterously, Kidman’s porcelain complexion shows no sign of ever having been exposed to the desert.

We’ve Seen This All Before

Herzog leans heavily on the visual language of Orientalism: the tendency to contrast the rational modernity of Western society and culture with a mysterious, timeless and “savage” East. Westerners have traditionally mined this imagined Orient for exotic pleasures, spiritual refreshment, antiquities or natural resources, but rarely consider the locals to be sophisticated enough to manage their own affairs.

Rather than the shrewd, pro-Arab political operator she was, the film portrays Bell as a romantic who just really loves Persian verse, ancient ruins and proud nomads. Asked what attracts her to the Bedouins, Gertrude replies: “It’s their freedom. It’s their dignity. It’s their poetry of life”. Yet she’s surprised when an enigmatic sheik turns out to have been educated in Paris and can converse in French about Baudelaire.

Reaching for such tropes seems monumentally out of touch, considering that film audiences now approach issues of race much more critically. Remember the pushback against 2010’s vile Sex and the City 2, which included the phrase “Lawrence of my labia”?

But there’s so much more of this nonsense throughout the film: veiled women are presented as disempowered servants, fountains are strewn with rose petals, and stallholders at bustling souks give Bell free stuff because she’s ‘special’. A loyal aide, Fattuh (Jay Abdo), swears, “I shall follow the lady to the end of the world”. Threatening tribesmen surround Bell, only to be mollified by her girlish sternness. (“Take me to your sheik!”)

Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, in which Kidman plays a very similar character, offers an interesting comparison. Australia is also corny and ridiculous, with a dubious tendency to fetishise Indigenous people. But at least Luhrmann relished the chance to make the epic melodrama form his own. By contrast, Herzog’s Orientalist vocabulary is lacklustre. Every panoramic shot, orchestral swell and dreadful line seems pasted in from 40 years ago.

A Desert Of One’s Own

In Herzog’s long history of following damaged, deranged characters as they forge through unforgiving wilderness, this is his first film to feature a female protagonist. The real Bell audaciously disobeyed the gender norms of her time. But Herzog is more interested in her intimate relationships than her geopolitical manoeuvres or her scholarly achievements. A woman’s heart is as vast and mysterious as Arabia itself, amirite?

Gertrude’s heart, apparently, wants diplomatic aide Henry Cadogan (James Franco, doing a risibly poor English accent), followed by married army officer Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis, going the full Soames Forsyte). Neither of these pairings convinces; there’s more chemistry between Bell and Fattuh. In fact, Franco is the worst I’ve ever seen him, and I’ve seen Your Highness.

Both affairs end badly; the take-home message is that romantic failure fuelled Bell’s professional success. Commended at one point for her bravery, she demurs: “I’m a woman who just misses her man”.

Because the film’s early scenes are ripped straight from the Feisty Girl’s Manual (formal parties are boring! Let’s ride a spirited horse!), there is something super-uncomfortable in a ‘white feminism’ way about Bell being drawn to the “freedom” of people in the desert. There’s something rather Whiskey Tango Foxtrot about the way the Orient operates as a vehicle for a white woman’s self-actualisation, which in fact depends largely on the labour of locals.

For Herzog, the desert’s harshness offers something ‘foreign’ and ‘masculine’ for Bell to pit herself against in order to emerge as ultra-British and ultra-feminine: a queen. She’s queenly the whole time: never pitching in to set up camp, but happy to enjoy a sensual oasis bath in a special tub filled by her loyal men.

And, unlike Tracks, which constantly interrogates why a white woman would want to inhabit a strange, arid landscape — and shows how that landscape writes itself on her body — Queen of the Desert only seems interested in the desert insofar as it allows her time and space to ponder, y’know, life and stuff. (“The deeper we immerse ourselves into the desert, the more everything seems like a dream,” Gertrude writes, inanely, in her journal.)

Why would a woman choose to spend her life exploring? What in her character responds to a vast liminal space? What are the real social structures that aid and impede her? Unfortunately for all involved with Queen of the Desert, such questions don’t seem to interest Werner Herzog at all.

Queen of the Desert is in cinemas now.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at @incrediblemelk