Werner Herzog has had one of the most fascinating careers in Hollywood history, which spans over 50 years. He has directed Oscar-nominated documentaries (Encounters at the End of the World), written and directed a unique slate of narrative features (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Rescue Dawn) and even portrayed distinct characters in front of the camera (The Grand, Jack Reacher). The multi-hyphenate returns behind the lens to direct his first feature since 2009's My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? with Queen of the Desert, which brings the story of Gertrude Bell to the big screen. She is well known as an important historical figure, whose travels and writings helped shape Middle East countries such as Jordan, Syria and Iraq in the early 1900s, but this sprawling biopic, which screened as part of AFI Fest in Hollywood on Sunday night, is plagued by wooden performances from an all-star cast and a protagonist whose motivations are ultimately vague, at best.
The film opens with a title card that explains how Gertrude Bell was instrumental in forming the boundaries for Middle East countries such as Iraq and Jordan, while helping establishing their governments in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire. As historic and important as these feats may be, they certainly aren't compelling enough fodder for a two-hour biopic, as we follow Bell through these "adventures" throughout the Middle East, the impetus of which is seemingly to escape her dreadfully rich parents (David Calder and Jenny Agutter), to carve her own path through life. She wants to travel into dangerous places she isn't supposed to, and meet important people she shouldn't have access to, and while her determination is certainly admirable, the motivation behind these travels and this path she wants to create are strangely absent from this story.
Interspersed with passages from Bell's writings during her adventures, we follow Nicole Kidman's title character as she defies direct "orders" from the British government, and exceeds all of their expectations by, honestly, just meeting with a number of different Arabic tribes and exploring their culture. These meetings did help shape British policy in historic ways, but hardly anything in this story provides for any sort of compelling viewing, aside from a few well-placed and surprisingly effective jokes... although it's worth mentioning that some of the laughs heard in the Dolby Theater seemed to come at the expense of the story itself.
If there is one thing that's abundantly clear about Gertrude Bell through this film, is that she was extremely unlucky in love. Her journey's origins are actually spawned because she is so bored with the suitors her wealthy family has lined up for her, and she desperately needs to get out of London. Shortly after her exodus from England, she strikes up a relationship with the dashing Henry Cadogan (James Franco), which ends in such a bizarre and anti-climactic fashion, and then she later begins a romance, of sorts, with Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis). Neither relationship "ends" particularly well, and, even worse, does practically nothing to move the story forward, even though there isn't much of a story to move forward to begin with.
Queen of the Desert's cause isn't helped at all by downright dull performances from Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Damian Lewis and Robert Pattinson as a young T.E. Lawrence, whose life story was told in the inimitable classic Lawrence of Arabia. Nicole Kidman's performance is actually as admirable as the historical figure she portrays, since she isn't given that much to work with, but James Franco's portrayal of Henry Cadogan is so laughably boring that the Razzie's might be calling his name next year. Robert Pattinson and Damian Lewis are both serviceable as T.E. Lawrence and Charles Doughty-Wylie, but the tiny amounts of charisma they manage to inject are simply not enough, for how much they are shown on screen.
If there is one thing worth watching Queen of the Desert for it's gorgeous landscapes captured by cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger and director Werner Herzog, but if you're looking for an inspiring biopic, you just won't find it here. It's worth noting that Werner Herzog himself revealed during his introduction at AFI Fest that the film we saw was a different cut than what was screened at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year. Since the reviews coming out of Berlin weren't terribly kind either, I can't imagine any significant improvements were made with this new cut, because it's just a surprisingly bland film that manages to largely waste a talented cast. The director also revealed that the film is scheduled for release in March 2016, so we'll have to wait and see how general audiences respond to this droll drama. Chime in with your thoughts on my review below, or on Twitter @GallagherMW.