Man, does Werner Herzog need to stick to making documentaries. Representing factual reality is clearly where his filmmaking passions lie, yet he continues to write and direct narrative features that serve no purpose other than to share historical fact through dramatization. Queen of the Desert is the second Herzog film to see U.S. release in half as many weeks, and much like Salt and Fire, this is a film that can be quite gorgeous to look at, but is so devoid of compelling substance that the imagery ceases to have any meaning.
Ostensibly, Queen of the Desert is a biopic of Gertrude Bell (inexplicably played by Nicole Kidman), an English explorer and political attaché who established diplomatic ties to the Arab nations of the Middle East. However, Herzog doesn’t make much of an effort to depict Bell’s travels or interactions with any sense of narrative arc, goal, or even coherence. Bell is established early as a fiercely intelligent woman who is restricted by the expected role of a woman in British society, but as Herzog depicts her life she does little more than become entangled in romantically chaste encounters with men in between extended bouts of wandering through the desert, making that proclamation of early feminism a moot bit of trivia.
There’s little evidence that Bell grows or matures in any way from her travels, and the impact of her expeditions is really only illuminated by a pre-credits title card that explains what exactly she did. I don’t doubt that the events the film portrays were extensively researched, and admittedly the performances of Kidman, James Franco, Robert Pattinson, and Damian Lewis are all admirably executed, likely accurate caricatures of the historical figures they are supposed to represent. But there’s no story here, nothing to keep the audience’s attention or even grab it in the first place. Stories can be composed of facts, but some sort of composition does indeed have to take place for those facts to be compelling.
Of course, the one type of composition that Herzog seems to excel at is in his shots, and the gorgeous set design evokes the early twentieth century sense of English decorum that many period pieces gloss over. But those beautiful images make little impact if there’s not a suitable context for their presence. What more can be said for a film that seems to think that the poetry of a woman’s life is so self-evident that no narrative structure is needed? The problem is that Gertrude Bell isn’t on screen in Queen of the Desert. Nicole Kidman is. And no actor or actress is so insightful to the mind of another person that their simple assumption of that role will speak the volumes necessary for this plotless drivel to work.