The world is full of men content to spend their lives within a few miles of where they were born, men who will love one woman, learn one language and go to their graves hardly having dreamed at all. These are not the men about whom Werner Herzog makes movies, although it took until age 72 for the chronicler of such bombastic souls as “Aguirre” and “Fitzcarraldo” to deem a woman worthy of one of his mighty portraits. Better late than never, and though Nicole Kidman is hardly the female Klaus Kinski, in the formidable character epic “Queen of the Desert,” she conveys with quiet determination what Kinski never could: the kind of conviction that changes the world.
Leaning more on romance than one might suppose to capture such an independent spirit as Gertrude Lowthian Bell, whose self-directed explorations among and dealings with the Middle East’s many conflicting tribes informed how the former Ottoman Empire eventually came to be divided, “Queen of the Desert” looks and feels big enough for megaplex play, yet lacks the central dramatic conflict that drove “The English Patient” and “Lawrence of Arabia” to such mainstream success. In his career, Herzog has seldom been accused of subtlety, but this particular narrative is actually so understated, it will have to be handled as a specialty title in most territories.
In speaking with biographer Paul Cronin, Herzog once dismissed the idea that a college education had anything but the most rudimentary technical knowledge to offer aspiring directors, advising that would-be storytellers instead ought to walk the roughly 2,000-mile road from Madrid to Kiev on foot, collecting genuine life experience along the way. Her self-evident intelligence not remotely sated by her studies at Oxford (where she was one of the first women allowed to attend), Bell immediately set about pursuing the sort of post-graduate course of which Herzog would approve: She begged her father to send her “anywhere,” so that she might escape stodgy old England and experience the world. He obliged, shipping her off to the Tehran embassy, where an uncle was employed.
Far more at ease in this exotic outpost, Bell allowed herself to be politely seduced by embassy secretary Henry Cadogan (James Franco, looking tired but charming, and acting almost entirely with his eyebrows). Their courtship is the stuff of Merchant Ivory movies, complete with scenic marriage proposal and an old Macedonian coin split in two for the lovers to remember one another by, though Bell’s father refuses to give his blessing, spelling tragedy for the couple. At the next stop on her travels, she encounters a young T.E. Lawrence (a consternated-looking Robert Pattinson, who, like Franco, elicited laughs in Berlin when he first appeared onscreen). Though she clearly makes a strong impression on every man she meets, he surprises her by asking, “Gertie, will you please not marry me?”
For Herzog, this proposal opens up a different set of opportunities to them both: They would be reunited more than a decade later by Winston Churchill to advise Britain on how to handle the country’s colonial stake in the Ottoman Empire. But in the meantime, being unattached allowed each to travel wherever their curiosity might lead. Of course, Lawrence’s exploits have been well documented, most famously by David Lean, while Bell’s have been largely overlooked on film, making this a long-overdue if somewhat under-dramatized chance to boost her historical profile.
As it happens, Lawrence and Bell were once featured in an episode of “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles,” advising young Indy against a life in diplomacy (where Bell helped to make her mark). For audiences who’ve come to associate Jones’ B-movie adventure-hero exploits with archaeology, however, Bell’s life will surely seem somewhat less exciting — which is unfortunate, since it would be hard to find a more exciting life among Bell’s contemporaries if you looked. And Herzog has looked.
Whereas the films he made with Kinski traded on the combustible actor’s volatility, this collaboration with Kidman uses the actress’ poised and almost regal bearing to its advantage. It also finds the actress looking younger and more expressive than she has in years, and though it’s impolite to remark on the “work” that movie stars have done, Kidman convincingly manages to play Bell as a delicate yet determined twentysomething, forging her way across untamed deserts, but still fragile enough to fall in love on two separate occasions. The second of these is with a married officer, Maj. Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis, as the ensemble’s most period-appropriate participant), with whom she begins an epistolary love affair whose florid expressions of yearning serve to narrate long, dry passages of desert wandering.
In Kidman, we see how fearless and resourceful Bell must have been in her travels — a noblewoman uncowed by her male peers. When the British authorities attempted to talk her out of visiting potential trouble spots, she went anyway, forging documents as needed and barely flinching when armed tribesmen surrounded her small expedition party or, in a scene where they approach with guns blazing, refusing to let a superficial bullet wound slow her course.
For modern audiences, Kidman’s embodiment of Bell may serve to represent an early symbol for equality of the sexes, but in Herzog’s more Germanic way, it actually stands to represent a kind of superiority: Here was a woman whose thirst for life left her towering over the petty ambitions of bureaucrats, civil servants and other small men. The movie celebrates that spirit in every aspect, from its valorizing widescreen cinematography (all the better to appreciate the scenery of a shoot based primarily in Morocco and Jordan) to its even more hagiographic score (composed by Klaus Badelt, doing his best Maurice Jarre, with ululating Arabic vocals to boot). And yet, Herzog’s script loses its way in the desert at one point, dutifully chronicling a life whose principal conflicts are a bit too abstract to dramatize. In the end, it’s not clear what’s driving Bell, nor what’s holding her back.