By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***1/2 out of *****.
Writer-director Werner Herzog’s long shelved Queen of the Desert (2015) is a stunning and beautiful portrait of writer, archeologist and cartographer Gertrude Bell’s journey through the middle east in the early 1900’s. These qualities are most readily reflected in Peter Zeitlinger’s striking cinematography. The same can be said for Klaus Badelt’s sweeping, exciting and spectacularly dramatic music. Likewise, Nicole Kidman’s lead performance, alongside James Franco’s turn as Henry Cadogan, are spectacular. They highlight the top-notch enacrments of this A-list cast. The notable exception to this rule would be Robert Pattinson’s robotic depiction of the legendary “Lawrence of Arabia” himself, T.E. Lawrence.
Yet, the film has an old-fashioned demeanor that is consistently endearing. This is glimpsed in Herzog’s hopelessly sentimental treatment of the various romantic sub-plots Kidman, often unwittingly, finds herself entangled within throughout the affair. This is even if the assorted characters she falls for often visibly lack genuine on-screen chemistry with our heroine. They are also generally unlikable. The major exception being the first act fling involving Franco. These early scenes showcasing the aforesaid duo are among the most visually alluring and captivating sequences herein. Still, there is a palpable stiffness to these arrangements. It is also apparent in the often sluggish, calculated pace. These traits give the presentation an impression of being admirable but, never fully encapsulating. This feeling is generated through every frame of its one hundred and twenty-eight-minute runtime. Such results in an effort that errs by always reminding audience members that they are bystanders. It does this by never becoming warm or inviting enough to kindly welcome and pull them completely into the world on-screen.
This coldness is especially interesting given the fact that Herzog’s production frequently revels in its wonderful esteem for poetry. It is a fondness shared by a large portion of those Kidman meets along the way. There is also an incredible ability in the feature, articulated outright in a second act line of dialogue from Kidman, to find the elegiac in both the memorable and mundane moments of Kidman’s travels. These instances are most prevalent in the second half of the exertion. This is more than welcome. I state this because the last hour often comes across as if it is crawling to its conclusion. Such is increasingly disappointing given the grand, highly cinematic promise of what came beforehand.
But, it is this gentle eloquence and maturity which saves the exertion. Such is echoed in Herzog’s masterful behind the lens contribution. It is also overseen in his proficient, if formulaically structured, scripting. The outcome is undeniably stalwart. Even if the labor isn’t as detailed as it could be, the picture is a triumphant marriage of effects, sound, breathtaking landscapes and Michele Clapton’s astonishing costume design. In turn, there is almost always something in the imagery or speech bystanders can appreciate. Best of all, we leave Herzog’s latest with a sense that we have trekked alongside Bell. Consequently, we have grown to understand her, and maybe ourselves, a bit better. That is why Queen of the Desert is, despite its previously stated flaws, an adventure well-worth taking. It’s not as meticulous and brilliant as Herzog’s 16th century set Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). There also isn’t any of the oddly enlightening observations or obsessive viewpoints into the creation of art that made Fitzcarraldo (1982) so invigorating. The attempt is deliberately restrained and surprisingly straight-forward. Regardless, it does what all worthwhile movies should do: give us an experience we can reflect on and ponder long after the end credits have scrawled past our gaze. For that alone, I have no problem giving Herzog’s current opus my recommendation.
(PG-13). Contains adult themes and some profanity.
On video on demand and in select theaters today.