Monday, May 06, 2019
Queen of the Desert
Written and directed by Werner Herzog, Queen of the Desert is about the life of Gertrude Bell from her 20s to the final years of her life as she becomes a famed traveler, writer, archeologist, cartographer, and political officer. The film is a dramatic account of her life as she would also meet various figures who would be important to modern history as she is played by Nicole Kidman. Also starring James Franco, Damian Lewis, Jay Abdo, and Robert Pattinson. Queen of the Desert is a visually-entrancing yet underwritten film from Werner Herzog.
The film chronicles the life of Gertrud Bell from 1903 to 1916 though it begins in 1915 where various individuals are in the Middle East trying to figure out what to do with T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) suggesting Gertrud Bell to help negotiate matters. It’s a film that play into Bell’s desire to see the world where she would inhabit various roles in her life but also endure tragedy and adventures. Werner Herzog’s screenplay doesn’t do much to create a substantial narrative that play into Bell’s evolution from a lady of privilege into the famed traveler who would also be a writer, a cartographer, archeologist, and political officer who would befriend tribes and help bring brief peace to feuding tribes. It also play into her romantic dalliances with embassy employee Henry Cadogan (James Franco) and later on the military officer Lt. Col. Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis). The romantic elements of the script never really fits in with the main story that revolves around Bell’s evolution into this woman who would travel throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa. Even as she would encounter different parts of the world and meet these unique individuals who live from the outside of conventional society.
Herzog’s direction is definitely entrancing for not just shooting on the Sahara desert but also to create a world that is vast and with a sense of the unknown. While much of the film is shot on location in Merzouga, Morocco along with shots in Marrakesh, Erfourd, and Ouarzazate in Morocco plus parts of London and establishing shots in Merzouga and Petra, Jordan. Herzog would capture the beauty of the deserts and locations through some intricate wide shots that gathers so much coverage as well as establish this depth of field that play into the vastness of the locations. Still, Herzog is focused on Bell’s travels and the things she encounter as he would create some nice intimate moments in the close-ups and medium shots upon her meeting with sheiks as she would understand them and they would be gracious in return. It’s among the moments that do make it interesting as well as scenes where Bell meets Lawrence and their views about the world itself.
While there are also some humorous moments in the film, the film unfortunately suffers from its shortcomings in the script where it would affect its pacing as it would plod from time to time including the romantic moments in the film. It’s where the film definitely loses interest as it also makes Bell seem like a homewrecker when it’s not exactly true considering that it was the men that were pursuing her. Herzog’s direction for those scenes do have some interesting compositions but it’s the script that doesn’t really flesh out the emotional aspect of those scenes. Overall, Herzog crafts a messy though fascinating film about the life and work of Gertrude Bell.
Cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger does excellent work with the film’s cinematography in emphasizing the natural lighting and look for many of the scenes set in the desert while emphasizing on a bluish look for the winter scenes in Britain. Editor Joe Bini does nice work with the editing as it has a few jump-cuts and some rhythmic cuts to play into some of the suspense and drama despite its shortcomings in the script. Production designer Ulrich Bergfelder, with art directors Rabiaa N’Gadi and Caroline Steiner, does brilliant work with the look of the homes that Bell would stay in as well as some of the old villages and such where the sheiks lived in. Costume designer Michele Clapton does fantastic work with the costumes from the lavish dresses that Bell and the women would wear at embassy galas and such to the more rugged look she would wear upon her travels through the desert.
Hair/makeup designer Alessandro Bertolazzi does terrific work with the look of the women hairstyles of the time as well as the messiness of Bell’s hair in the desert. Visual effects supervisors Kaspar Kallas and Olaf Przybyszewski do some fine work with some of the film’s visual effects as it largely minor work in bits of set-dressing. Sound designer Laurent Kossayan does superb work with the sound as it play into the atmosphere of the locations including the sounds of guns and cannons throughout the film. The film’s music by Klaus Badelt and Mark Yaeger is amazing for its somber orchestral score driven mainly by strings as it play into the mystique of the Sahara and its desolate locations as well as the world that Bell would encounter.
The casting by Salah Benchegra, Beth Charkham, and Shannon Makhanian is wonderful as it feature some notable small roles from Mark Lewis John as Bell’s uncle Frank Lascelles, Beth Goddard as Bell’s aunt, Holly Earl as her cousin Florence who has feelings for Cadogan, Assaad Bouab as a sheikh who invites Bell to his home as they share a love of poetry and literature, Sophie Linfield as Doughty-Wylie’s wife Judith, Younes Bouab as a young King Faisal I of Iraq, Christopher Fulford as a young Winston Churchill, David Calder as Bell’s father Hugh who disapproves her relationship with Cadogan, and Jenny Agutter as Bell’s mother Florence who is concerned about her daughter’s desire for adventure as she is reluctant to let her daughter seek it out. Jay Abdo is fantastic as Fattouh as a guide who would accompany Bell on her many journeys as well as be her most loyal companion who would help her trek through the land and be someone that Bell would really care for. Robert Pattinson is excellent as T.E. Lawrence as the famed archeologist, army officer, writer, and diplomat whom Bell would meet as he doesn’t care for any romantic interest in Bell but rather as a colleague and equal whom he shares his views on the world with.
Damian Lewis is terrific as Lt. Col. Charles Doughty-Wylie as a military official who becomes Bell’s second major love interest as someone who is fascinated by her views of the world where Lewis has his moments but he and Kidman don’t really radiate any kind of chemistry due in part to the script. James Franco’s performance as Henry Cadogan as this embassy employee isn’t very good due in part to the script’s shortcomings as well as the fact that Franco doesn’t do a good English accent as he and Kidman also don’t have any chemistry where it feels forced. Finally, there’s Nicole Kidman in an incredible performance as Gertrude Bell as the woman who do all sorts of things as she seeks adventure and challenges where Kidman displays a radiance to her character as well as some restraint in her facial reactions. Despite some of the drawbacks of the romantic aspects on Bell’s life, Kidman does display that anguish of a woman who had dealt with so much as she is also trying to move forward with her desire to explore the world.
Queen of the Desert is a stellar yet underwhelming film from Werner Herzog that features a great performance from Nicole Kidman. Along with its dazzling visuals, somber music score, and strong supporting performances from Jay Abdo and Robert Pattinson. It’s a film that does play into Bell’s life as an explorer though it fumbles into its exploration into aspects of her personal and romantic life which isn’t as interesting as what she does when she’s traveling. In the end, Queen of the Desert is a good but messy film from Werner Herzog.
Werner Herzog Films: Feature Films: (Signs of Life) - (Even the Dwarfs Started Small) - (Fatana Morgana) – Aguirre, the Wrath of God - (The Enigma of Kasper Hauer) - (Heart of Glass) – Stroszek - Nosferatu, the Vampyre - Woyzeck - Fitzcarraldo - (Where the Green Ants Dream) – Cobra Verde - (Scream of Stone) - (Lessons of Darkness) - (Invincible (2001 film)) - (The Wild Blue Yonder) – Rescue Dawn - (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) – (My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?) – (Salt and Fire) – (Family Romance, LLC)
Documentaries: (The Flying Doctors of East Africa) - (Handicapped Future) - (Land of Silence and Darkness) - (The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner) - (How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck) - (La Soufrière) - (Huie's Sermon) - (God's Angry Man) - (Ballad of the Little Soldier) - (The Dark Glow of the Mountains) - (Wodaabe) – Herdsmen of the Sun) - (Echoes from a Somber Empire) - (Jag Mandir) - (Bells from the Deep) - (The Transformation of the World into Music) - (Death for Five Voices) - (Little Dieter Needs to Fly) – My Best Fiend - (Wings of Hope) - (Pilgrimage) - (Ten Thousand Years Older) - (Wheel of Time) - (The White Diamond) – Grizzly Man - Encounters at the End of the World - Cave of Forgotten Dreams - (Into the Abyss) – (On Death Row) – From One Second to the Next - (Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World) – (Into the Inferno) – (Meeting Gorbachev)
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