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Nicole Kidman & Werner Herzog Can't Pull 'Queen Of The Desert' Out Of The Sand

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 13, 2017 2:48PM

Nicole Kidman and Robert Pattinson in “Queen of the Desert.” (Photo by Lena Herzog. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.)

Whether he's at the peak of his abilities or far from it, one criticism rarely lobbed at Werner Herzog's work is that it's ordinary. From his early career, helping forge German cinema's New Wave, to the intimate yet ambitious scope of his recent documentaries, ordinariness just seemed like it wasn't in his toolkit.

Alas, it is.

Queen of the Desert, Herzog's biographical epic about pioneering explorer Gertrude Bell, is a pretty ordinary film. Not a bad one, mind you, but somehow it would have been less of a letdown if this director—whose body of work has had such unique flavor—had made a truly terrible but less conventional movie.

Still, disappointing as it is, the movie does succeed in reminding audiences what a good actress Nicole Kidman is as she reaches a tricky career stage. Kidman turns 50 this summer—an age when American studios shove too many good actresses to the sidelines of supporting maternal characters. She has already been Dev Patel's adoptive mother in Lion, she plays the repressed headmistress of an all-girls school in Sofia Coppola's upcoming remake of The Beguiled, and she'll be Aquaman's mama when the swimming superhero reaches movie screens in 2018. Uh-oh.

Not that maternal roles can't be good or even great ones, but if Kidman saw Hollywood's infamously poor treatment of middle-aged actresses coming her way, playing someone as daring as Bell under the direction of a maverick like Herzog must have looked like a great way to dodge that pitfall.

Playing the character from her twenties through her forties, Kidman is excellent as Bell, who left behind a comfortable, affluent life in England to explore the Middle East during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An archaeologist and writer, she travelled through lands that provided considerable hardships for men not used to the region's climate and customs. A woman leading her own team though harsh desert environs seemed almost impossible to her contemporaries.

Despite the entrenched sexism of British and Arabic societies, Bell quickly gained a reputation as an expert on the areas she explored. Middle Eastern leaders welcomed her and British authorities called her into duty as they pushed forward with a colonial agenda. Among other things, she was deeply involved in the creation of the country we now know as Iraq.

Herzog, who also wrote the screenplay, only hints at the thorny political issues the U.K.'s Middle East policy set in motion. It's the back end of the story here. The focus is mainly on Bell's joy in living among and learning about other cultures, as well as her relationships with foreign service representative Henry Cadogan (James Franco) and Army officer Richard Wylie (Damian Lewis). Despite emphasizing Bell's intrepid independence, Queen of the Desert is surprisingly old-fashioned in letting the romantic subplots almost take over the film.

That romanticism might have worked with less stilted dialogue. There are a few nice lines, particularly during Wylie's cautious early flirtations with Bell, but too much of Herzog's writing is formal to a fault. The cast enlivens it as much as they can, but the characters feel like biopic structures more than living, breathing people.

Bell's desert journeys eventually led her to cross paths with the famed T.E. Lawrence, played winningly here by Robert Pattinson, who's a good deal less intense than Peter O'Toole's beloved incarnation of the character in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. (Herzog doesn't shy away from the shadow of that 1962 classic either. Aside from majestic wide shots of travelers on camels bound to bring the earlier film to mind, Klaus Badelt's music has deliberate nods to Maurice Jarre's instantly recognizable score.)

While Pattinson gets the most colorful supporting part, the aforementioned romantic partners are more central to the storyline. Franco is decent, but his character makes an early exit. Lewis (Homeland) fares better as Wylie, making his character's longing for Bell almost painful to witness. The show belongs to Kidman, but Lewis steals a couple of scenes.

Visually, the film is blandly attractive. Herzog collaborated again with ace cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, and the Jordanian and Moroccan locations gave them plenty to work with, but the movie still feels like it escaped from the "epics anonymous" school of cinema.

Bell was a natural subject for Herzog, who has long been fascinated by explorers and adventurers. But unlike the obsessives he dramatized or documented in Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo or Grizzly Man, Bell is pretty much a model of responsibility—at least by contemporary standards. As good as Kidman is in the role, the onscreen Bell lacks the oddball characteristics that mark the protagonists in Herzog's most memorable work.

But while some have been quick to use Queen of the Desert to argue Herzog should retire from narrative films and concentrate on the documentary arena (where he has thrived in recent years), I can't go along with that. As recently as 2009, with the wonderfully warped Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Herzog showed he could still upend viewer expectations in the narrative form.

Here's hoping he's ready to be that unruly again soon.

Queen of the Desert. Written and directed by Werner Herzog. Starring Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Robert Pattinson and Damian Lewis. 127 mins. Rated PG-13.

Opens Friday, April 14.