It is amazing how the same source material can create products of such vastly different quality. “Lawrence of Arabia” stands as one of the true epic works of cinema, telling the sweeping story of T.E. Lawrence’s life from archaeologist to student and explorer to freedom fighter, against the backdrop of the Arabian uprising within the slowly dying Turkish Empire. “Queen of the Desert” pulls from the same incredible tapestry, following the life of Gertrude Bell. The equally inspiring writer, explorer and Renaissance woman served for the British as both a spy and diplomat, working alongside Lawrence as revolution sweeps across the desert.
The only difference is that “Lawrence” is a classic and “Queen” is pretty damn bad.
“Queen of the Desert” is an infuriating film to review because it is so dull and dry that it is hard to muster the passion necessary to criticize it. It is truly amazing how the creative team took such an epic tale set in the earth-shaking events of World War I and made it so drab and uninteresting. When characters aren’t spouting hollow exposition about politics and locations we’re never given a reason to care about, they are arguing with the monotone frustration normally reserved for episodes of “Downton Abbey.” There is not a single character whose emotional stakes are raised above a mellow growl, leaving you screaming at the screen for someone, anyone to care.
Nicole Kidman tries her best to to make Gertrude, a woman not bound by the strict gender roles of the era, an empowering character. However, there is no actual conflict with the character because every single issue she runs into is resolved off-screen after she sternly disagrees with someone. There’s a hasty romance with James Franco as Henry Cadogan that is resolved by minute 30, and that’s the closest we ever get to an arc.
The only actor who brings anything interesting to the table is Robert Pattinson, of all people, as T.E. Lawrence. Having your character’s only relevant comparison be Peter O’Toole can’t be a pleasant thought, but Pattinson finds a fun niche in this philosophical, jovial and charming Robin-Hood type. It is tempting to be kinder to him because, at the very least, he has a personality.
It’s also hard to overstate how uninteresting the film looks. All the stunning desert landscapes blend together in under-saturated, underexposed and hazy mush. Every single shot feels like the first idea Herzog came up with or was too lazy to workshop. There’s never any sense of scope or weight to the incredible nature around the characters. It takes effort to make cities erected in the middle of deserts this boring.
Ultimately, the biggest takeaway is that this film is boring in every creative department. It looks drab, the acting is dry, the music is generic, the stakes are never clear and there’s never a central plot. Comparing “Queen” to “Lawrence” might be unfair, since almost no film is going to fare well with such a challenge. But I do hope that someday the great Gertrude Bell gets a film as epic or as meaningful as her counterpart Lawrence did, because this film ultimately does a disservice to her name.
“Queen of the Desert” will open Friday, April 7 at the IFC Film Center at 323 Sixth Ave.
Email Carter Glace at [email protected]