Queen of the Desert
Director: Werner Herzog
Writer: Werner Herzog
Cast: Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Robert Pattinson, Damian Lewis, Jay Abdo, Jenny Agutter, Holly Earl, Mark Lewis Jones, David Calder
Seen on: 14.9.2015
Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman) really doesn’t care about getting married, which puts her rather at odds with British society. She was one of the few women who were allowed to study at university, which gives her family an excuse to send her traveling. So Gertrude travels to the Ottoman Empire. With every passing year Gertrude becomes more independent until finally she defies all social norms and starts traveling the desert, really getting to know the area and its people, acquiring insights no other British person was able to get.
Queen of the Desert can be summarized with “Orientalism the Movie”. It’s flabbergasting that such an unquestioned imperialistic view on the Middle East could still make it on the screen today. We should all know better by now.
For a while I was hoping that the film only depicted a world steeped in Orientalism rather than being orientalist itself. But in the end, there was no chance of that. In the end it’s the story of a white woman who comes into a strange land, becomes a better native than the natives there, completely erasing that it is their experiences and knowledge that makes her special, and finally crowns said woman the Queen of the Desert and by extension of its people. All the while there is barely a person of color with a speaking role in the film and it’s all about the British empire. But it’s okay! Because Gertrude has total appreciation for the beautiful natives in their natural, wonderful ways, unmarred by the plight of civilization like we are in the west. They are so wise, it’s almost magical! Bleargh.
I am sure that Gertrude Bell was an impressive woman. And her insistence on doing her own thing is impressive, especially considering the time period. But the film would have desperately needed some critical distance to its subject and the inherent racism in a system that generally favors men, but that would still rather trust the information of a white woman on the natives than those natives themselves. Unfortunately the film buys into the waves that Bell caused and never manages to look beyond that.
Add to that a few missteps in directing and script, like the voice-over or the fact that Herzog has no idea what makes men sexy which makes Gertrude Bell’s courtships involuntarily hilarious. I mean, seriously, both James Franco and Damian Lewis are good-looking, sexy men and especially with Franco you really have to make an effort to remove the sexual tension he seems to carry with him wherever he goes (I haven’t seen enough of Damian Lewis to determine whether his sex appeal is that universal). But somehow in this film Franco is not only less attractive, he is so littly attractive, it feels unbelievable that it was ever any different. Ladies and Gentlemen, your romantic hero.
Be that as it may, there are too many good people involved in the film that it is entirely without its strengths. Above all Nicole Kidman was great – almost as good as the cinematography. But that just isn’t enough.
Summarizing: puzzledpeaces suggested throwing Edward Said’s collected works at Werner Herzog’s head. I agree.