Love is a Tyrant

Queen of the Desert

queen_of_the_desert

Director: Werner Herzog

Cast: Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Robert Pattinson, Damian Lewis, Jenny Agutter, David Calder, Jay Abdo, Mark Lewis Jones

German documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog directs Oscar winner Nicole Kidman (The Hours, The Paperboy) in a majestic towering role as Gertrude Bell, a fiercely independent British woman who after escaping the stifling confines of a her wealthy family estate in England travels to Arabia at the turn of the 20th century as the ruling Ottoman Empire is on the verge of collapsing.

The Arabian Peninsula especially modern day Syria and Jordan and into Iraq, 100 years ago was on the point of being carved up by the European powers with England eagerly wanting a slice of Arabia especially with their most prominent colony Egypt right next door.

Gertrude Bell, cartographer, explorer, archaeologist and traveller is first stationed in the British Embassy in Tehran, now contemporary Iran, and there she meets her escort and guardian, a junior diplomatic secretary Henry Cardogan rather underplayed by James Franco (Milk, 127 Hours) who soon declares undying love for her. Bell has to seek permission from her father for the marriage to take place and when her father refuses, Henry promptly dies in mysterious circumstances in Persia.

Bell, wonderfully played by Nicole Kidman returns to Arabia and using Amman and Damascus as a base she wilfully decides to travel through the Arabian peninsula and desert, hoping to get a more comprehensive understanding of the nomadic Bedouin tribes and who the rival Sheiks’ are.

The more Bell travels across the desert the more she realizes how complex the local political situation is. With the assistance of the quick witted and slightly effeminate T. E. Lawrence, superbly played by Robert Pattinson (Cosmopolis, Maps to the Stars, Twilight), Bell becomes an expert on the Arab people and complexities of dividing up such a huge area, for geo-political purposes.

From an ethnographic point of view, Herzog’s Queen of the Desert is a fascinating film to watch and purely interesting, especially if viewed through the current political turmoil that is sweeping parts of the Middle East, namely Syria and Iraq.

The best scenes in the film are between Kidman as the fiercely brave Bell, a statuesque blond and commanding woman who swept through Arabia unafraid of the local customs or inherent dangers and the cautious British major Charles Doughty-Wylie played by Damian Lewis of Homeland and Wolf Hall TV fame.

Not to be confused with Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which was about Drag Queens in the Australian outback, this Queen of the Desert is a captivating and episodic historical tale of one woman’s brave adventures across the entire Arabian peninsula and her subsequent recommendations on the division of the desert into different self-governing states, namely The Kingdom of Jordan and Iraq.

Best scene in the film is the pompous photo opportunity involving Bell and Colonel T. E. Lawrence with Winston Churchill on top of camels outside the great pyramids of Giza in Egypt.

Whilst the men in Gertrude’s life fade away during the First World War, it is really Nicole Kidman’s film which makes her performance as Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert so admirable. Kidman’s ability to hold her own amidst such dramatic and majestic scenery, the windswept sand dunes of Arabia is reminiscent of Debra Winger’s brilliant performance in Bernardo Bertolucci’s handsome film The Sheltering Sky.

Queen of the Desert is highly recommended viewing, slightly long but nevertheless an astonishing historical portrait of a woman who shaped the future of the Arabian Peninsula.

 

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