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QUEEN OF THE DESERT

SYNOPSIS: A curious and adventurous young upper class 19th century woman eager to explore the world outside of England, Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman) makes her escape with the help of her father Sir Hugh Bell (David Calder) to the British embassy in Tehran where she quickly falls in love with a secretary of the embassy, Henry Cadogan (James Franco). This sparks the beginning of a life-long adventure among the beautiful but misunderstood peoples and cultures of the deserts and Bedouins of Arabia. Along the way, her path intersects with archaeologist T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) also known as Lawrence of Arabia, and Major Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis), the British Consul General in the Ottoman Empire. (Based on a true story.)

Review by Louise Keller:
A biopic of Gertrude Bell, an independent minded early 20th century British woman attracted by the poetry of life in the Arabian desert, should be as riveting as David Lean's epic, Lawrence of Arabia. Certainly, the story of this self-acclaimed traveller, archaeologist, explorer, writer and poet whose insight into Bedouin tribes contributed to the delineation of borders at the time of the demise of the Ottoman Empire, has all the elements of a hero's journey: determination, courage, survival against the odds. I was enthralled by all the elements, greatly enriched by the majesty of the desert, yet Werner Herzog's historical drama plays like a Merchant Ivory romance, concentrating its heart on mere matters of the heart, instead of injecting the kind of drama and tension the story should inspire.

There's an atmospheric opening sequence in which reflective music punctuates the vista of the vast desert, as the nebulous winds skim across the sand as far as the eye can see. A flashback twelve years earlier shows a rebellious Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman) instructed by her parents at their English estate, not to scare off men by her intelligence. It becomes clear as Gertrude travels to the British Embassy in Tehran, that men in this part of the world are seduced, rather than scared by her intelligence. Kidman's Gertrude is the epitome of elegance and beauty and Kidman does a fine job of the portrayal. The breathy romance with James Franco's embassy secretary, Henry Cadogan is charming in a vanilla way: when they kiss for the first time, the music theme from Klaus Badelt's score echoes those from Maurice Jarre's Lawrence of Arabia.

The pace changes somewhat as Gertrude sets out into the desert on the back of a camel, to study the habits of the Bedouins. Wearing a headdress, a miscast Robert Pattinson is a curiosity piece as T.E. Lawrence, who Gertrude encounters 'in the labyrinth'. 'I'm not sure the right man for you has been born yet,' he tells her. Damian Lewis as Charles Doughty-Wylie, the British Consul in Damascus seems to fit the bill, but his married status is a deterrent. Besides, Gertrude does not feel ready to commit. Lewis is terrific; bringing a solid authenticity to the decent man whose only misdemeanour is to lose his heart. Jay Abdo as Fattuh, Gertrude's desert guide, who declares he will follow her to the ends of the earth, also shines.

Cinematically, the film looks wonderful, especially in the desert scenes when the harsh landscape is on display. I also love the scenes with the camels. What extraordinary creatures they are! But what should be the film's highlights: the journeys through the desert and the dangers that face Gertrude prick our interest but are not followed through to our satisfaction. Herzog's film would resonate far more if the emphasis had been on developing these sequences. Greater dramatic tension at these critical times might have gone a long way to offer the film the impetus it needs. After all, it is Gertrude's part in the political landscape that carries the greatest interest. As it is, Herzog's film is a bit of a yawn and a tease - leading us into the desert but leaving us high and dry.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Werner Herzog has made a cinematic monument to Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman), famed for her travels through Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and Arabia, during which she met and was befriended by Bedouins and future kings of Iran and Syria. The British made use of her connections and knowledge and she played a significant role in establishing Iraq. The film shows too little of how she became so central to this history at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries - although it is spoken of by other characters. Herzog is more interested in her romantic history of ill-fated love, presenting this as the reason for her spinstership.

The first 45 minutes of the film (after a brief establishment sequence showing her desperation to leave the stuffy upper class confines of her life in England) are devoted to her meeting and falling in love with a secretary of the British embassy in Tehran, Henry Cadogan (James Franco).

We do see a lot of her moving through the desert with her faithful guide Fattuh (Jay Abdo, excellent) and we are privy to some notable encounters with some of the sheiks who will later play a bigger role in political affairs, but it's not enough the demonstrate why and how she gained such deep and long lasting respect and affection among the Arabs - as well as the British military. The result is a meandering film of disjointed experiences, albeit interesting and beautifully filmed. (Though not always superbly directed ... )

The visual pleasures are enhanced by Klaus Badelt's score (which at times seems to pay homage to Maurice Jarre's work for Lawrence of Arabia) but we never really warm to either Gertrude or the story. And we should.

Nicole Kidman gets limited opportunities to develop Gertrude into the complex and determined person she must have been - and perhaps she is miscast (so is Robert Pattinson as T. E. Lawrence); James Franco's Henry Cadogan comes across as a bit insipid and dull, but Damian Lewis makes up for it with a strong and nuanced performance as the already married Major Charles Doughty-Wylie.

Of the supports, most memorable are Holly Earl as Florence, madly in unrequited love with Cadogan, and Assad Bouab as a Sheik who finds Gertrude fascinating.

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CRITICAL COUNT
Favourable: 0
Unfavourable: 1
Mixed: 1

QUEEN OF THE DESERT (M)
(US/Morocco, 2015)

CAST: Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Robert Pattinson, Damian Lewis, Jenny Agutter, Holly Earl, Mark Lewis Jones, David Calder, Jay Abdo, Beth Goddard, Christopher Fulford, Assaad Bouab

PRODUCER: Michael Benaroya, Cassian Elwes, Nick N. Raslan

DIRECTOR: Werner Herzog

SCRIPT: Werner Herzog

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Peter Zeitlinger

EDITOR: Joe Bini

MUSIC: Klaus Badelt

PRODUCTION DESIGN: Ulrich Bergfelder

RUNNING TIME: 128 minutes

AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Transmission

AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: June 2, 2016







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