“QUEEN OF THE DESERT” My rating: C+
129 minutes | MPAA rating PG-13
“Queen of the Desert” is quite possibly the oddest film of director Warner Herzog’s wildly idiosyncratic career.
A mash-up of woman’s picture, real-life biography and sweeping “Lawrence of Arabia” images, it stars Nicole Kidman as Gertrude Bell, a British adventuress, diplomat, archaeologist and feminist who became an expert on the Middle East in the years before World War I.
We first encounter our heroine in 1888. The daughter of a steel magnate, she’s being groomed for a fitting marriage.
“You will not scare the young men with your intelligence,” her mother warns, but Gertrude is having none of it. She’s too independent, too strong willed to endure simpering aristocratic society.
(Kidman, now 49, plays Bell from age 21 to 40. Remarkably, she pulls off the youthful Gertrude, thanks to great makeup and God-given bone structure.)
Her exasperated father finally agrees to let her join the British embassy in Teheran where she soon finds herself falling for Henry Cadogan (James Franco, struggling to maintain a Brit accent), a low-ranking staff member assigned as her escort. Henry’s prospects aren’t promising, but like Gertrude he loves the desert. And he’s not afraid of her independent streak.
Daddy, however, nixes this liaison, and a heartbroken Gertrude turns her back on romance, devoting herself to travels in the Middle East, crossing vast deserts with a handful of faithful local guides.
During her travels she runs across a young T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson), working on an archaeological dig at Petra in Jordan. Years away from his exploits among the Arab tribes in the Great War, Lawrence already wears the native costume that will become his trademark. He and Gertrude flirt innocently, but neither is looking for a relationship.
Over years Gertrude is befriended by the Bedouin. She also finds a lover — platonic — in married British statesman Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damien Lewis).
Eventually Gertrude is recognized by her government and with Lawrence is part of the commission that divides up the Middle East in the wake of the war.