'Queen of the Desert' Review: Female triumph
Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert opens with a tent full of Brits discussing the future of the various territories left by the deposed Ottoman Empire. In the course of their discussion, they are forced to take cognizance of a person who is peculiarly not in their company, considering how important she is in the current state of things.
The person is Gertrude Bell, played beautifully in the film by Nicole Kidman. She is a writer, archaeologist, and a woman in a world dominated by men. She’s been spitefully called a “silly bitch,” a “man-woman,” and other nasty things by the men who are to use her contributions to increase the role of the British Empire within the Arab world. Gertrude’s presence in their world is an aberration. Thus, her journey to carve a role for herself in that world is a struggle that requires obsessive perseverance.
In other words, Gertrude’s unique story is one that is distinctly within the arena of Herzog whose films like Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Fitzcarraldo (1982), and Grizzly Man (2005) have depicted men whose ludicrous passions, extreme needs, and boundless ambitions result in ungodly and absurd feats.
A romance of sorts
Gertrude’s story begins with a party, where she passes from one dance partner to another in what feels like a hopeless search for a suitable husband.
She begs her parents to send her away to a faraway land, and she gets her wish. She is shipped to Iran where her uncle is an ambassador. There, she falls in love with a lowly secretary (James Franco) in the British embassy. Sadly, their relationship doesn’t work out because of various reasons, giving Gertrude the fortitude to live out her life bereft of romance.
The biggest problem of Queen of the Desert is that it is structured like a sweeping romance. It depicts Gertrude as a woman who finds love elusive, whether it be out of her own choice or the consequences of the time. Herzog, who wrote the screenplay, peppers the film with awkward elegance, with dialogues that are too flowery and scenes that are too polished for comfort. Despite its attempts at establishing a perfumed atmosphere that is well-suited for epic love stories.
However, it is the fact that the film has the trappings of a romance that makes it interesting, and at certain points, humorous in all its absurdity.
Love in the time of tyranny
See, Herzog seems more interested in the world that would result in an abomination like Gertrude rather than Gertrude’s triumphant story itself. Given this, Herzog’s manner of veiling the film with softer hues, mannered gestures, and that strange air of enchantment, emphasizes Gertrude’s struggle amidst the pulls and pushes of the stereotype that she has to follow.
Gertrude’s many journeys to the various far-flung tribes of the desert are all sandwiched in between flirtatious interactions with a consul (Damian Lewis) she has befriended, in a way that would feel like it was a set-up for a predictable and swoony conclusion. Herzog however avoids the fruition of all the expectations he so carefully and methodically established.
It almost seems like Herzog’s intent was to frustrate in his depiction of a woman whose bid at greatness hinges on a life where she is struggling in between rebelling against a system where women are only worth their husband’s accomplishments and resisting the familiar grooves of following her stubborn heart.
“Love is a tyrant, sparing none.”
The quote from Pierre Corneille’s Le Cid is repeated in Queen of the Desert, referring to how love seems to miraculously sprout where bleak deserts of emotions abound. The quote is also fitting because despite the film’s expansive grasp, it focuses on a tyranny that Gertrude was herself a subject of. Her key presence in the midst of two opposing cultures that tolerate or celebrate patriarchies is perhaps the greatest love story in a film that has her jumping from one man to another only to end up with none.
Queen of the Desert is hardly Herzog’s best film. In fact, it might arguably be his most unremarkable and unexciting work, considering that its protagonist’s crazed struggle doesn’t require her to traverse the jungles of the Amazon lugging along a full steamboat. The film’s feminine feel is evident, and Herzog is tellingly groping his way into a psyche that he hasn’t explored before.
Nevertheless, the film is an enriching experience. It offers an old-fashioned take on a tale whose milieu offers far more riches than its typical narrative can offer on its own. – Rappler.com
Francis Joseph Cruz litigates for a living and writes about cinema for fun. The first Filipino movie he saw in the theaters was Carlo J. Caparas’ 'Tirad Pass.' Since then, he’s been on a mission to find better memories with Philippine cinema. Profile photo by Fatcat Studios