Queen of the Desert plays it safe and fails the story of Gertrude Bell, the pioneering woman who guided the British during the emergence of the modern Middle East. By Christos Tsiolkas.
Werner Herzog’s ‘Queen of the Desert’
In this story
Gertrude Bell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s new film, Queen of the Desert, was an archaeologist and writer. Born into a wealthy industrialist family in Victorian England, she was one of the first women to graduate in history from Oxford University. Though proudly independent, in her writings she is anti-suffragette and articulates a steely upper-class suspicion of egalitarianism. She is most famous for a series of expeditions she took into the Arabian Peninsula, gaining the trust and respect of the Bedouins, and writing eloquently on the cultures of the Middle East, to the extent that she was pivotal in the negotiations for the newly founded Arab states after World War I. But even though she was ruthlessly critical of the British military’s blundering in the Middle East, she never abandoned her belief in the correctness of the civilising mission of European colonialism. Clearly, even a cursory knowledge of Bell’s life would indicate that a straightforward biographic treatment would prove inadequate for a 21st-century audience.
The perfect director for Bell’s life is now dead. Leni Riefenstahl, the dishonoured German filmmaker, shared Bell’s passion for mountaineering, and her later work as a photographer in Africa displays that combination of exoticism, regard and condescension reflected in Bell’s own writing. That fusion of classicist aesthetics and operatic Romantic Expressionism, of such redoubtable formal beauty in Riefenstahl’s documentary of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Olympia, could anchor a life that straddled Queen Victoria and the disintegration of the first stage of imperialism after the Great War. Bell must have possessed a personality and a fearlessness of great will to defy her status as a woman, and to assume her right to travel the desert seas of Arabia and Mesopotamia. But we have to intuit all this from the squandered limitations of Queen of the Desert’s conception of Bell. The Romanticism of this film is neither epic nor transcendental: it is the Lady Bell that the filmmakers are interested in, not the warrior.
Of course, in thinking of how to translate the depiction of will cinematically, we have to wrestle with Riefenstahl’s other great work, the morally repugnant Nazi documentary, Triumph of the Will. The inhumanity of European colonialism and the continuing debacle of Western interference in the Middle East require a filmmaker prepared to extend their approach beyond the historical biography, and to frame the narrative around the multitude of contradictions that assail us as contemporary readers of Bell’s books. We can no longer trust in the benignity of the detached rationalist European observer.
Herzog, one of the key directors in the New German Cinema of the 1970s, would seem to be well placed to direct such a work. In Aguirre, the Wrath of God and in Fitzcarraldo he has already given us two films of hallucinatory vision that capture the demonic impulse at the heart of the European’s desire to know and to conquer the New World. What makes these films still unsettling is that we perceive Herzog’s own struggle to integrate and understand his avowed anti-colonialist and humanist ethics with his fascination with German Romanticism and the promise and scandal of the Nietzschean Übermensch. This struggle animates him as a director across his feature films and documentaries, and it was still playing out in his finest recent film, 2005’s Grizzly Man.
That is why it is so shocking to be confronted with the dull, tame biopic that is Queen of the Desert. Storytelling coherence has never been Herzog’s strength. One remembers the opening and closing scenes of Aguirre: the legion of conquistadors reduced to insects in the grandness of the Amazonian landscape, the insane ravings of Aguirre abandoned to his raft as it sails him to his death down the river. We forgive the looseness of plotting and the stretches of boredom for the undoubted power of such set pieces. They are like arias in an opera, and they remain unforgettable because they succeed in the astonishing feat of making us believe that we are witness at the dawn of the colonial era. The story of Queen of the Desert, scripted by Herzog, is also rambling but there is not one moment of equivalent grandeur.
It may be being unfair to both Herzog and to Nicole Kidman, who plays Gertrude, to suggest that the film’s failures stem from their dismal misunderstanding of Bell herself. But those faults are announced from the very beginning, both in the script and in the performance. Kidman’s Gertrude is a variant of Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, a headstrong young woman rebelling against the strictures of her flighty conservative mother figure, played by Jenny Agutter, and indulged by her weary rich father (David Calder). Florence Bell, Gertrude’s stepmother, was a playwright and scholar, and to waste the talented Agutter in a role that has her bemoaning women’s education and wanting only a rich husband for her daughter is a travesty. That belittling of her character seems hypocritical given that the film chooses to concentrate on Gertrude’s romantic liaisons over her role as explorer and writer. Her relationships with Henry Cadogan, played by James Franco, and with Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) become the focus of the film, relegating to the background the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, World War I and the emergence of the modern Middle East.
It may be assumed that the filmmakers want to deify Bell as a feminist precursor and that is why they have refused to engage with the contradictions that make her most fascinating but also most unlikeable. But if that’s the case, their concentration on her love life still makes no sense. It diminishes Bell and it compromises their film. Kidman has courage as an actor and in her best roles she has been prepared to play characters defined by their callousness. She has been intelligent enough to use that element of her persona that audiences find most confronting – her coldness – and to make that seeming limitation a strength. One knows that she instinctively understands the ruthlessness and drive that must have been core to Bell’s character.
Kidman was woeful in the romantic comedy Bewitched, her every forced smile and gesture telegraphing to the audience that she knew the film was shit. It seemed to me that she made a deliberate choice after that film to pursue roles that would never suffocate her in such a way again. Queen of the Desert isn’t shit and it is clear she is trying to build a performance, but her warmth feels strained. We get no sense of how this woman mastered the languages she did, of how she became obsessed with history, or of where she found the courage to become the first Western woman to enter territories where no European had been before. The script fails her but so does her surrender to playing Bell as a love-struck teenager. It feels like another mistake that another actor wasn’t chosen to play the younger Gertrude. Kidman’s performance has some greater subtlety in the latter parts of the film, particularly when she doesn’t have to pretend, simpering next to Franco and Lewis, but by that time our patience is lost. Her Bell never feels more than mimicry.
David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is the film to which Queen of the Desert will unavoidably be compared. This is not only because Bell was a contemporary of and friend to T. E. Lawrence, who is played by Robert Pattinson in this film, in its most nuanced and intelligent performance, but also because the story of both films traverses the same locations and period. The comparison can only diminish Herzog’s film. In Lawrence of Arabia, history was never subjugated to romance, and though its colonialist framing deserves critical dismantling, the friendship between Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence and Omar Sharif’s Sherif Ali was central to the film. Queen of the Desert’s failure can be gleaned from the secondary roles assigned to the Arab characters. That the filmmakers believed a contemporary audience would be more interested in Bell’s love affairs than with her dealings and conversations and engagements with the Bedouins, Druze and Arabs seems contemptuous.
There is one other way the film can’t compare with Lawrence of Arabia, and that is in the cinematography. Lean’s was shot on 70 millimetre and it remains a film that needs to be seen on the largest of cinema screens. Peter Zeitlinger, the cinematographer on Queen of the Desert, is an able and inventive craftsman but the limitations of digital stock mean that the depth of field and the sumptuous colours of the older film cannot be replicated. Seeing it on the big screen compounds the cruelty of the comparison: Queen of the Desert looks cheap.
A film so misguided, when it is talented people getting it so wrong, is disheartening. The whole thing feels like mimicry and the filmmakers, the audience and Gertrude Bell herself – we’ve all been cheapened.
CULTURE Barunga Festival
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St Helens, Tasmania, June 10-13
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CINEMA Sydney Film Festival
Various venues, Sydney, June 8-19
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Cotton Tree Park, Maroochydore, Queensland, June 5
VISUAL ART Biennale of Sydney
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 4, 2016 as "Absence of Arabia".
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