The German filmmaker and international wanderer Werner Herzog could easily give the early twentieth-century British explorer Gertrude Bell a run for her money in the intrepid stakes. While Bell boldly rode out into the desert around the time of the First World War to discover more about Arabian nomadic tribes, Herzog thrives on extremes and new horizons, whether wrangling Klaus Kinski on the set of 'Fitzcarraldo' in the jungles of South America or filming penguins in Antarctica. So it's little surprise that he's now turned to Bell, played here by Nicole Kidman, for his latest drama (itself a rare event since Herzog now devotes most of his time to shooting documentaries).
But Herzog's 'Queen of the Desert' is sadly staid – a conservative, overly pretty walk through Bell's life with only the odd flash of cheekiness his fans will crave. (One welcome close-up shot of a vulture recalls the scene-stealing iguana in his last-but-one fiction feature, 'Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans'.) Bell's travels took her from a postgraduate posting at the British embassy in Tehran, initiated by parents worried by her wanderlust, to missions all across Arabia at the time when imperialism was fading and nationalism was on the rise – all via two key romances, first with diplomat Henry Cadogan (James Franco) and later with soldier Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis).
Herzog mostly indulges the romances and the landscapes, with little care for nuances of character, history or geopolitics. He walks through events without breaking sweat, much in the same way that Kidman plays Bell – politely, effortlessly and sensibly but with little inquiry. Whole swathes of the film are simply illustrated text as Kidman reads from her diary, conjuring brief snapshots of events.