For a movie set in the Middle East, there’s not much heat in “Queen of the Desert.”
The drama’s ambition to be the female “Lawrence of Arabia” is announced in its opening seconds, with desert panoramas accompanied by a sweeping musical score. T.E. Lawrence is even a “Queen of the Desert” character, whom the titular Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman) befriends when she travels to the Middle East as a student/spy/activist/politician.
Bell is an authentically important person, who helped draw national boundaries that still exist. But, too often, the film plays out as the rote story of a woman who struggled for recognition in a man’s world and who fell in love with a couple of the men along the way.
It’s as if Bell’s achievements were too big and too ephemeral for writer-director Werner Herzog to wrap his head around, so he settled for a couple of love affairs that feel like wan imitations of those in “Out of Africa” and “The English Patient,” two other Oscar winners “Queen of the Desert” can’t hold a lantern to.
It’s astonishing that a woman as celebrated as Bell has not already been the subject of a biopic. Her life presents Herzog with plenty of material, so it was probably a smart decision to use Bell’s letters and diary entries to tell her story.
Unfortunately, there is so much narration in “Queen of the Desert” that it feels like a lecture, accompanied by a slideshow of pretty Syrian sunsets. Too often, we’re being told what happened to Bell, rather than shown it and, as a result, the movie feels boring even though a lot happens in it.
One thing Herzog did right was casting Kidman, who is intelligent and mysterious as Bell (having just knocked “Little Big Lies” out of the park and, with starring roles coming up in the new Sofia Coppola, John Cameron Mitchell and Yorgos Lanthimos movies, Kidman is having one heck of a year). But her co-stars are less successful.
It’s frustrating to watch her struggle to spark something with Lover No. 1 (James Franco, who seems uncomfortable with his British accent) and possible Lover No. 2 (Robert Pattinson is fine as Lawrence, but the film doesn’t know what to do with the legendary figure).
“Queen of the Desert” finally settles into a groove with Lover No. 3: Damien Lewis is excellent as a British Army officer who slowly learns to let Gertrude be herself. It’s too little, too late, though, and, really, the movie should be talking about the truces Bell forged, the friendships she created and the books she wrote, not the dudes she smooched.
Queen of the Desert
☆☆ 1/2 out of 5
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Damien Lewis, James Franco, Robert Pattinson.
Director: Werner Herzog.
Running time: 2:07.
Rated: PG-13, for violence, brief nudity and language.