Queen of the desert

QUEEN OF THE DESERT. US, 2015, Starring Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Damian Lewis, David Calder, Jenny Agutter. Directed by Werner Herzog. 109 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes)

For more than 40 years, Werner Herzog has been both provocative and profound in his range of films. He began with some art-house narrative features, including The Enigma of Kasper Hauser as well as a version of Nosferatu in the 1970s. He has also continued to make a number of documentaries, and is well-known for his hard treatment of his cast, especially in the Latin American-set films, Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Fitzcaraldo.

Over the decades, he has been prolific, blending features and documentaries, often going to remote areas to exploit human experience there, including the Antarctic (and, in some moments of irony, he comically voices a film-maker in Antarctica in the animated film, Penguins of Madagascar). In recent years, he has worked from a base in the United States, making such features as Bad Lieutenant, New Orleans, as well as a documentary on the prehistoric drawings in the caves in France, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, filming in 3 D.

Yet, it is something of a surprise to find him making Queen of the Desert. It is very much in the traditional modes of filmmaking, a straightforward narrative, action sequences and romance, with a historical perspective.

Gertrude Bell was an English woman, educated at the University, a pioneer in her times at the beginning of the 20th century. Dissatisfied with life in England, she goes to the British Embassy in Tehran, finds the old Persian culture congenial, begins to learn Farsi, which becomes a preparation for her return to the Middle East and becoming something of an explorer and archaeologist.

However, the screenplay alerts the audience to her role during World War I, her friendship and association with T.E. Lawrence and the repercussions for knowledge of the Bedouin tribes, their alliances, the experience of the war and the reshaping by the conquering allies, creating Middle Eastern countries. Winston Churchill presides at a meeting early in the film to discuss the repercussions for the war and his advisers at the meeting refer him to Gertrude Bell, some very traditional male types sneering at her and what she has achieved.

The film looks very good, the scenes in England very much in the Merchant-Ivory? respectable style. Iran looks more than a touch exotic. But the film and its photography are beautiful and strong in the many desert sequences as Gertrude ventures into the Arabian pensioner, visits Damascus, and shares in aspects of the life of the tribes. Considering that Lawrence of Arabia was made in 1962, it is very surprising that there has not been a film about Gertrude Bell before this.

Herzog is well served by his cast. Nicole Kidman is at her best as Gertrude Bell, very much an English lady at all times, but one with a keen sense of enquiry, and empathy for the Arabs who receive her very well and consider that she is one of the best westerners for understanding them. On the personal level, Gertrude clashes with her newly-rich parents and their desire for a good marriage. In Tehran, she meets one of the staff who is attracted to her, teaches her Farsi, falls in love but has to return to England where her father forbids her to marry, with tragic consequences for the young man. Surprisingly, he is played by James Franco.

In Damascus, a married official (Damian Lewis) falls in love with her. She hesitates, but reciprocate only to find that he volunteers to fight in the war. Audiences might be surprised to find that after her adventures in the desert, Gertrude Bell worked for the British government, based in Cairo, collaborating with T.E. Lawrence and that she continued this work until her death in 1926.

Film buffs might be disappointed that Herzog, at this stage of his life and career, has made such a popular kind of film. Most audiences will find it interesting and entertaining.

Transmission     Released June 2nd

Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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