What does it say about the current appeal of Werner Herzog's fiction films when his star-studded 2015 period adventure, Queen of the Desert, hasn't been released until now? Between its premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival and its appearance in U.S. cinemas, the German director has released two documentaries—both stellar—and shown yet another fiction drama on the festival circuit, the truly bizarre Salt and Fire. Now in theatres, Herzog's first fictional feature film since his two-shot salvo of The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and My Son, My Son, What Have You Done? in 2009 is certainly his most expansive drama for decades. With a cast of James Franco, Robert Pattinson, and Damian Lewis, all led by Nicole Kidman, Queen of the Desert adapts the true saga of Gertrude Bell, an utterly unique woman who at the turn of the last century plunged into the deserts of the Middle East by herself and become better acquainted and more influential among its myriad tribes and factions than anyone else before and possibly since.
Yet for a director so adept at discovering, eliciting and pursuing a kind of inspired mania and adventurousness in his fellow man, coming across his first female heroine Herzog stumbles. Or perhaps coming across Nicole Kidman, who is a force of will in the film similar to that of Isabelle Huppert's presence in Claire Denis's White Material: an actress whose persona and process is so strong that it actively fights the efforts of the director. While White Material ultimately feels like a compromise between actress and director, in Queen of the Desert Kidman wins: it is she who sets the tone of dignified perseverance in her character and in the film's story.
Around her are arranged an episodic assembly of men. There are those that love her, including the first and never matched love (played by Franco) of this highly educated and direct woman who was stifled in English domesticity; and then there are all those Englishmen who follow him. There are, too, all the Arab men to whom she rides up on a camel vibrantly pretty and politely impetuous—and they let her in as well. And where Kidman-Bell moves from place to place Herzog is obliged to follow, eliciting an erratic series of performances from those she confronts. The director is never able to either keep the rest of the film's sprawl on the same even keel as the actress; nor is he able to push Kidman in fervor to match the oddness of James Franco's impish grin being a foundation of his Englishman's poetic love for Bell, or the similar off-kilter energy of stunt casting Robert Pattinson as T.E. Lawrence. The strangeness of these appearances—immediately eliciting laughter at the film's tremendous Berlin premiere—suggest something of a canny destabilization by Herzog of a potentially sleek prestige film. It's not that the movie needs to be crazy and Kidman is not crazy; it's that the film struggles within itself and is unable to determine what to do: where it commit its tone, focus, and images. Even this might imply an inspired erratic or eccentric quality Queen of the Desert does not have, despite, for example, a handful of truly strange visions of the desert discovered through crane movements and cameras on drones. Yet placed next to an average piece of prestige historical cinema, even these little wrinkles and visions seem like cool water to a thirsty traveler.
In the cast, only Damian Lewis seems to understand the film Kidman is in, a restrained period piece of muffled English passion, and meets her there. There's a grand romantic idea at the film's core beyond even the biographic amazingness of the story: a flirtation with the desert that is pushed, through the failure of poetic love, to become a unnamable vocation, an obsession with leaving English civilization behind in abstract search to fill a wounded, empty heart. Which may be why the film is less about Gertrude Bell's adventures, what she does, than it is a series of meetings between her and men. These men are as much of Bell's journey in the film as her actual perilous paths taken in the desert, and yet none, including her supposedly marvelous relationship with the various Arab sheiks, carry in them the excitement of discovery that these themes of poetic love, poetic geography, poetic adventure suggest. A telling anecdote: when Kidman-Bell is handed a goat head to eat by a sheik, she holds it in her hand but we never see her bite in, which would have been the kind of commitment normally found in a Werner Herzog movie. The film's opening images are of a windstorm over a desert, and the camera trembles from the barren force—yet the film is entirely missing the danger and the mystery suggested by this energy pulsing outside the frame.