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‘Queen of the Desert’ review: Werner Herzog creates brainless drama

Nicole Kidman plays British writer Gertrude Bell in

Nicole Kidman plays British writer Gertrude Bell in Werner Herzog's "Queen of the Desert." Credit: IFC Films / Lena Herzog

PLOT The story of Gertrude Bell, the British writer known as the “female Lawrence of Arabia.”

CAST Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Robert Pattinson

RATED PG-13 (adult themes)


PLAYING AT Stony Brook 17

BOTTOM LINE A lifeless, brainless costume drama from, of all people, Werner Herzog.

German director Werner Herzog once made a movie whose cast was under hypnosis. Titled “Heart of Glass,” it’s a meditation on the filmmaker’s favorite themes — madness, reality, authenticity — and exactly the kind of weird, brilliant experiment you’d expect from the director of such crazed masterpieces as “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Stroszek” and “Grizzly Man.”

A few years ago, Herzog seemed to set himself another challenge: Could he make a Hollywood costume drama? The kind with A-list stars, exotic landscapes and a swelling score? This experiment is called “Queen of the Desert,” starring Nicole Kidman as Gertrude Bell, the British writer who traveled the Middle East during World War I and helped shape the region’s modern borders. Whatever Herzog’s goals for this project, the result is a surprise: After all these years, the visionary writer-director has made a terrible, terrible movie.

“Queen of the Desert” has been sitting on a shelf for a couple of years, and it’s easy to see why. The presence of Kidman, looking suitably stately, almost convinces us we’re watching a proper movie. It’s immediately clear, however, that something is amiss. We don’t know what draws Bell to the Middle East or why, once there, she gives her heart to Henry Cadogan, a low-level diplomat. He’s an unimpressive figure played by James Franco with an accent that sounds about as British as a Big Mac.

Then comes T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson), a petulant fop moping around the archaeological dig of Petra. The aim here may be to wipe away Peter O’Toole’s definitive portrayal in “Lawrence of Arabia,” but it’s a grievous example of either miscasting or misdirecting.

What happened here? Herzog has such a perverse sense of humor that this movie could very well be a deadpan practical joke. Another explanation is that Herzog, a philosopher-filmmaker with a mythopoetic sensibility, simply isn’t good with the little details of love, politics and history. Intentionally or not, “Queen of the Desert” at least proves that Herzog is as unpredictable as ever.

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