Queen of the Desert movie review: Gertrude Bell gets forgotten again

Queen of the Desert green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

This may be Werner Herzog’s most conventional film, but its mostly untold true story knows what it means for a woman to choose a life of adventure and intellect.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for stories about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Have you heard that there is a new movie, a sweeping biopic of a major historical figure, written and directed by Werner Herzog, starring Nicole Kidman, James Franco, and Robert Pattinson? Seems like kind of a big deal, doesn’t it? Seems like the kind of movie you’d hear a lot about. Instead, Queen of the Desert has been sitting on a shelf since it debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2015 — more than two years ago — because… why? Why did it just now get a tiny US release — one screen in NYC and one in LA, and dumped immediately onto VOD? It’s true that critics who saw the film during its festival run were generally not kind to it, but that’s not a reliable indicator of future critical response or how well audiences will like a film, either, given the right incentives to see it… like letting them know that it exists and is available to see at a multiplex near them.

“I bet if I was a man, there’d already be an instant-classic, nominated-for-10-Oscars film about me...”
“I bet if I was a man, there’d already be an instant-classic, nominated-for-10-Oscars film about me…”tweet

I suspect, alas, that despite the presence of big names upon which the film could easily be sold, no one knew how to market a movie about a historical female figure, Gertrude Bell, who is all but unknown to mainstream moviegoers even though she is almost singlehandedly responsible for the political shape of the Middle East today; she even foresaw the problems that would arise, the ones the world is trying to cope with today. (I would like to think that the enormous success of Hidden Figures will change that, will show Hollywood that, in fact, there’s no big secret to be uncovered regarding selling movies about women doing cool and adventurous and momentous stuff. But another thing I suspect is that no one has learned a damn thing.) Even though the marketing practically creates itself: “The female Lawrence of Arabia, starring Nicole Kidman!”tweet That’s kinda problematic, actually, since Bell came before Lawrence — he should be called the male Gertrude Bell — but still, it gets the job done. So how did that not happen? I further suspect that the only reason Queen of the Desert finally did get even this pathetic release is so that it could ride the coattails of Letters from Baghdad, the marvelous documentary about Bell (and a superior film to this one, to be honest) now playing in the UK and opening in June in the US.

The cinematic dumping of Queen of the Desert continues the outrageous erasure of Gertrude Bell from pop-culture consciousness.

It’s difficult not to feel like the way the industry has treated Queen of the Desert is just continuing the outrageous erasure of Bell from pop-culture consciousness.

Not that Queen is a perfect film: it’s not. Weirdly, the most disappointing thing about it is that it’s probably Herzog’s (Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, Into the Abyss) most conventional film: you’d never guess it was histweet if you didn’t already know it was, and it would certainly have benefited from his gonzo approach to storytelling and his quirky philosophical bent, particularly with a subject who was an unconventional as a woman of her time and place could be. Long before T.E. Lawrence ever thought of heading out into the desert (because he was still a toddler), Bell went to Tehran to escape from the stifling expectations English life placed upon her — to get married, which would require not scaring away potential suitors with her intelligence — and fell in love with the country. She roamed the whole Middle East as a student of the peoples and their cultures, defying men (usually British soldiers and diplomats) who would stop her doing whatever she damn well pleased, and demanding respect from them, and getting it, although sometimes only grudgingly. She would eventually become an essential resource to the British government after World War I saw the end of Ottoman rule of the region, requiring new borders to be drawn and new governments to be established.

“I gift you these binoculars, and warn you not to mention to any Westerner the sticky black stuff bubbling up out of the ground.”
“I gift you these binoculars, and warn you to ixnay any mention of the oil-ay to Westerners.”tweet

So if Queen is a rather cinematically traditional telling of her story, it’s still hugely important, because we simply haven’t heard it before! Kidman (Secret in Their Eyes, The Family Fang) beautifully embraces this extraordinary woman,tweet makes us believe that her life of freedom and adventure and intellect was inevitable and necessary for her. We feel like she had no choice, not truly. I’ve seen criticisms that Queen focuses too much on Bell’s love life, which is a laughable contention, and one that misses the point entirely of focusing on such at all, which is that the men she loved had a huge impact on her life and work, much more so than women and romance typically have on men in their stories. In Tehran, Bell falls in love with diplomat Henry Cadogan (James Franco: The Night Before, True Story), and it is partly through his passion for the Arabic people and cultures that she falls in love with them as well. And it’s when that relationship doesn’t work out, for several reasons, that she commits herself fully to her studies and work. She tried to do the thing that was expected of her, and the expected thing rejected her attempt: this is what frees her to become the sort of woman she became, one emphatically not defined by a man or a marriage. (Men never have to do this: they never have to be granted permission, either actually or metaphorically or just in their own minds, to pursue the things they care about. And men never worry that they will be defined by their romantic and sexual relationships.) Later, Bell falls into a passionate but unconsummated affair with Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis: Our Kind of Traitor, The Sweeney), a British consul in Syria, carried on mostly through correspondence. Through this relationship, we get a sense of (among other things) the practicality and lack of sentimentality that drove her larger relationships with the tribal people of the places she was investigating: Doughty-Wylie’s gifts to her, such as an heirloom pistol, make even more magnificent gifts to cement new friendships with wary sheiks.

“Don’t you dare overshadow me, Lawrence. Crap, you’re going to anyway, aren’t you?”
“Don’t you dare overshadow me, Lawrence. Crap, you’re going to anyway, aren’t you?”tweet

Far from the whole movie is about romance. Bell does not fall in love with T.E. Lawrence, whom she meets at Petra, though they are kindred souls in many ways, and Kidman and Robert Pattinson (The Lost City of Z, The Childhood of a Leader) are terrific together in expressing that. There are wonderful sequences in which Bell’s gender serves as a disarming aspect of her diplomacy, and one heartstoppingly suspenseful sequence in which she is presumed, as a woman roaming around on her own, to be free for the taking by one tribal prince who wants her as his wife. And there is real power in merely the simple, straightforward depiction of a woman living life on her terms,tweet ceding no authority over herself, and discovering the world and herself along the way. There’s extra power in knowing that it was a real woman who achieved this at a time when even more obstacles were in her way than women today face. Bell’s is a tremendously significant story, and it’s a shame that Queen of the Desert won’t be seen by more people.

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