Tastefully designed and exhaustively told, this biopic about British explorer/archaeologist Gertrude Bell traces her uncommon upbringing and extensive travels throughout the Middle East at the dawn of the 20th century. While at no point betraying egregious filmmaking incompetence, as a whole the linearity and sheer bulk of the narrative give the ultra-old-fashioned picture a cumbersome, airless feel.
Kidman is in fine form here, carrying decades of an iconic life on her regal frame, communicating through a calm, oceanic voice the dispassion of someone who calls the desert home. The handful of private moments featuring her lost in introspection, heartbreak or solitude are quietly moving. Whether the broadly staged scenes of Bell’s various romantic pursuits send the story to its emotional heights or tip it over to eye-rolling territory, however, will be largely dependent on the beholder’s threshold for schmaltz.
Covering the regional history and geo-political tensions surrounding the demise of the Ottoman Empire while chronicling the extraordinary journey of a woman far ahead of her time, this character epic is all scale and little subtlety. It showcases impressive craft, both technically and performance-wise, but lacks the blood flow that could make something this informative engrossing as well.
Queen of the Desert | Directed by Werner Herzog (USA 2015) with Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Damian Lewis. Starts September 3
Originally published in issue #141, September 2015.