It’s a common fear among film fans that their favorite creators will eventually completely lose touch. Werner Herzog’s latest narrative feature is a failure of such a baffling degree that it may leave you wondering whether he suffered sunstroke in the desert heat while filming it. But Herzog has previously thrived on madness, so the failure here proves even more curious.
It’s not for lack of material, as this biopic follows British explorer/archaeologist Gertrude Bell, a woman of incredible political power best known for shaping modern Iraq — not that you’d get that from the movie. Among many missteps is Herzog’s casting. Bell’s first suitor, Henry Cadogan, is played with distracting goofiness by James Franco. Meanwhile, present-day Nicole Kidman portraying a 20-something — as she does for a good chunk of her screentime — demands too much suspension of disbelief.
The biggest problem, though, is that Herzog doesn’t know what to do with a heroine on his hands. He makes Bell halfheartedly pine for Cadogan before she declares, in voiceover, “My heart belongs to no one now but the desert.” Well, not for long, as Bell gets flung into another affair, this time with Major Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) while her political prowess is cast aside as a series of anticlimactic events. Even when she’s called a “queen” — by Lawrence of Arabia himself (Robert Pattinson) — she replies that she’s “just a woman who misses her man.” That Herzog makes this the crux of her characterization, but then blunders the romance into TV-movie material, is a crime to the real Queen. At least the desert looks pretty good.
Queen of the Desert
Written and directed by Werner Herzog
Opens April 7, IFC Center
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 5, 2017