Rather than let the story and the character unfold, the opening credits of Queen of the Desert tell us who the important historical figure Gertrude Bell was. She was a white British woman who, at the beginning of the 20th century became the unlikely expert in the culture and people of the Middle East. In simpler terms, she was the female T.E. Lawrence, and helped draw the lines on the map that created modern countries like Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
Maybe director Werner Herzog didn’t trust his own storytelling, because after that text intro, the story starts at the beginning… or at least the beginning of this fascinating woman’s foray from British society into the desert. Gertrude (Nicole Kidman) is a bored, brilliant, unmarried woman of a certain age who can’t find a man worthy of her in society. So dad says (as fathers are wont to do in 1898 England), “Hey, why don’t you go to Tehran!” In Tehran, she bafflingly falls under the spell of a second-tier diplomat, played by the miscast James Franco with a wobbly British accent. This chunky first half hour shows feathers landing on a sunset-dappled pond to portray the deep love felt for this whispery man whose only skills seem to be wooing and doing card tricks. This relationship (according to the movie) shaped Bell’s view of men and love for the rest of her life, but as a viewer, you are left thinking, “Huh?”
Getting the dull romance out of the way, the plot then puts Gertrude in more interesting situations. With “her men” and a bunch of camels, she traipses across the desert, bold in a way that few women were, with a ballsy, “What do I have to lose?” attitude. As a woman, you know that she gets away with a surprising amount, as she encounters gun-wielding horsemen and sheiks with bad reputations. She returns periodically to check in with the British Consul General in Damascus, Major Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis), who is enchanted by the independent Gertrude, despite the fact that he is married. But he can’t hold her heart either, as her one true love is the desert. Apparently.
Queen of the Desert surely looks fantastic, with its sweeping dunes and shimmering vistas. The lush, evocative score harkens back to classic Hollywood epics. And the talented cast is game, with standouts including Robert Pattinson’s surprisingly fun appearance as a cheeky T.E. Lawrence, Damian Lewis’ joyful and encouraging (and love-struck) major, and Kidman herself as a strong-willed independent spirit.
But as Gertrude moved from place to place and proclaimed her independence and spirit and love for the desert, I kept thinking, “Now where is she going? And why?” As she encounters others, they ask if she is a poet, or a spy, or an explorer. She is coy and non-committal in her answers. She keeps diaries and takes photos and want to go dangerous places just to say she did… But what was her motivation? Basically her whole focus was muddy and unclear. When the final scene illuminates what an important role she played in the literal shape of modern countries in the Middle East, you want to run and pick up a book and find out more. The movie, unfortunately, just doesn’t give us enough.