AFI Fest Review: ‘QUEEN OF THE DESERT’ – A Royal Pain In The Ass


Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Directed by: Werner Herzog
Starring: Nicole KidmanJames FrancoRobert Pattinson, Damian Lewis

Over the past few years, we’ve seen our fair share of women wandering deserted land, discovering nature’s beauty and themselves in the process. Director John Curran’s TRACKS transported us to the surprisingly lush but dangerous landscape of the Australian outback with Mia Wasikowska as our guide. Director Jean-Marc Vallée’s WILD took us through the treacherous Pacific Crest Trail with petite powerhouse Reese Witherspoon leading the way into the light. Now director-writer Werner Herzog gifts ethereal actress Nicole Kidman with her iteration of a pioneering female force in QUEEN OF THE DESERT. While I’d hoped this was Herzog’s manic fever dream of a sweeping melodramatic romance, it wanders off a cliff.

Herzog opens and closes his film on loads of text when it needed none. It’s 1898 and thirty-year-old Gertrude Bell (Kidman, 48) has graduated from Oxford. Rather than be married off to a boring suitor, she yearns to satisfy her wanderlust. She’s on a search for something greater. Her life changes when, in Teheran, she meets the love of her life, Henry Cadogan (James Franco, in a role that should have been played by virtually anyone else). But tragedy strikes before they can marry. Gertrude sets out on a quest for solitude through the Sahara Desert. She’s married to the desert now, she defiantly proclaims. However, following the tracks of her tears leads her to meeting T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson, who was probably pitched LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and got this instead), constant companion Fattuh (James Abdo), a multitude of sheiks, and married paramour Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis).

Nicole Kidman journals in QUEEN OF THE DESERT.

Nicole Kidman journals in QUEEN OF THE DESERT.

The real-life Bell was a writer, political officer, traveler, archeologist, photographer and cartographer. She was an invincible bad-ass whose bravery and sense of adventure have inspired many. However, her biopic falls far short of a perfect tribute to its pioneering heroine. Word to the wise: when Kidman plays a historical figure, run, do not walk, away. QUEEN OF THE DESERT makes GRACE OF MONACO seem like theatrically released material. It’s more in line with direct-to-video fare, what with its clunky dialogue, choppy editing and equally horrendous score. Talky sequences about political landscapes and diplomatic strategies repeat over and over again. Romance between Kidman and any of her male leads is awkward – most notably with Franco. This is laughably bad – so much so, it’s distracting. Plus, it’s horribly boring. Even the payoff from the hero shot of Kidman riding away on the horse with someone saying the film’s title/ her nickname can’t propel this into “so bad, it’s good” territory.

If there is a savior, it’s how Herzog and his long time cinematographer Peter Zetlinger capture the physical landscapes. There are a handful of time lapse nature segments that are utterly breathtaking. The locales look warm and welcoming. It’s just too bad the actors literally stand in the way of true greatness.

QUEEN OF THE DESERT played AFI Fest on November 8. It will be released March 2016.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.