PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Nicole Kidman is one busy and productive screen actress.
She’s coming off her fourth Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress for Lion, with one Oscar already on her mantle (as Best Actress for The Hours), and with roles in another half-dozen movies set to open over the next year-and-a-half.
And she’s more than up to the showy task in the title role in Queen of the Desert, the latest work from writer-director Werner Herzog.
If only the film itself was as strong as its leading lady.
The biodrama, Queen of the Desert, is a real-life chronicle of the life and career of Gertrude Bell, a traveler, writer, linguist, explorer, archaeologist, cartographer, and political attache for the British Empire at the dawn of the twentieth century.
Talk about a Renaissance woman.
And one who spent her time in a lifelong adventure across the Arab world, standing up to and challenging men in and out of power even when consistently advised to do otherwise.
Often described as the “female Lawrence of Arabia,” independent noblewoman Bell, as a young woman, begs her father to send her away from not-challenging-enough England. So he ships her off to the British Embassy in Tehran, where her uncle works.
Trailblazer Bell would go on to contribute significantly to the eventual formation of the modern Middle East.
This is the first female protagonist from writer-director Werner Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Nosferatu the Vampyre; Fitzcarraldo; Grizzly Man; Rescue Dawn), and offers an uncharacteristically straightforward and conventional narrative from Herzog, usually seen as an idiosyncratic visionary.
But while Bell’s many against-all-odds undertakings and accomplishments should be the through-line here, it is instead her love life that offers itself as the spine – and not a very sturdy one at that.
The casting is the culprit on this score, because two of the three principal men in Bell’s life are miscast. That would be James Franco, inappropriate as British Embassy secretary Henry Catogan; and especially Robert Pattinson, who looks both lost and in over his head as T.R. Lawrence. Only Damian Lewis as Major Charles Doughty-Wylie seems to belong there opposite Kidman.
But perhaps the film’s biggest problem will be the inevitable comparisons viewers make with David Lean’s masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia, given the parallels and overlaps. Queen of the Desert obviously lacks the epic sweep and exciting drama of Lean’s film, which the makers of the former surely must have realized going in. And yet Herzog seems to be not only relishing but encouraging the comparison.
That doesn’t help.
Herzog is, among other things, trying to correct the inequity between the world’s knowledge of Lawrence’s exploits and the lack of knowledge of Bell’s. But this approach doesn’t do the trick, despite a commanding performance by the versatile Kidman as the intelligent, brave, and stubbornly determined protagonist.
Still, the remote and uninvolving screenplay, riddled with its share of awkward dialogue, fails to give us a clear and satisfying explanation of what ultimately drives her.
So we’ll travel to 2 stars out of 4. Nicole Kidman rings the Bell, but Queen of the Desert gets stuck in a sand trap.