Nicole Kidman’s ‘Queen of the Desert’ moves at a camel’s pace

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Nicole Kidman plays writer and British spy Gertrude Bell in Werner Herzog’s “Queen of the Desert.” | IFC FILMS

“Please just call me Lawrence.”

“Will do, Lawrence.”

–Nicole Kidman’s Gertrude Bell meeting Robert Pattinson’s T.E. Lawrence in “Queen of the Desert.”

From the score to the setting to the epic wide-screen shots to the title character, most of the primary elements of “Queen of the Desert” will remind you of “Lawrence of Arabia.”

The quality of the movie will not.

(For one thing, Robert Pattinson of “Twilight” fame isn’t a bad actor by any means, but he’d be the first to tell you he isn’t Peter O’Toole. Nobody was Peter O’Toole except for Peter O’Toole.)

Gertrude Bell is often referred to as “the female Lawrence of Arabia,” and indeed Bell’s trailblazing adventures and accomplishments in the late 19th century and through World War I are the stuff of legend — and potentially powerful dramatic material.

Alas, the great and usually fantastically innovative Werner Herzog has turned Bell’s story into a conventional, cliché-riddled, overly talky and plodding biopic where very little happens for long stretches of time, and we have to endure deadly-dull voice-over narration while looking at admittedly gorgeous scenery and, well, camels.

With her Academy Award-nominated turn in “Lion” and her excellent work on the HBO limited series “Big Little Lies,” among other recent achievements, Nicole Kidman has been on an wonderful winning streak — and she does fine work here as well, though she’s playing a character about half her age in the early portions of the story.

Fresh out of Oxford in the early 1890s and armed with blazing intelligence and a voracious appetite for exploring the world, Gertrude sets off for the British embassy in Tehran, Persia, where her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles (Mark Lewis Jones) holds a title equivalent to a modern-day ambassador.

Soon Gertrude meets one Henry Cadogan (James Franco), a dashing rogue who shows her around Persia, reads poetry to her, marvels at her quick wit and plucky ways, and falls for her as she falls for him.

Franco affects a bit of a “Well ‘ello to you my foine fellow” accent. It’s not good. (At times he seems to altogether forget he’s playing a Brit and he just sounds like James Franco.) When Henry’s relatively brief role in Gertrude’s personal journey comes to a conclusion, we forget him much more quickly than does Gertrude.

“Queen of the Desert” dutifully follows Gertrude around Persia, Palestine, Syria, Jordan and other exotic and mysterious and often dangerous locales as she forges her path as a writer, archaeologist, explorer, political officer and even a spy for the British government. Time and again, establishment figures tell Gertrude there’s no place for a woman where she wants to go, that it’s unheard of for a woman to undertake what she’s undertaking, etc., etc. All quite true, of course — but why does it have to be depicted in such a formulaic, uninvolving fashion?

Familiar and talented actors such as the aforementioned Franco and Pattinson, as well as Damian Lewis (as Maj. Charles “Richard” Doughty-Wylie, a married man who falls for Gertrude) show up as fictionalized interpretations of real-life historical figures.

Sometimes there’s a spark of romance, sometimes not. Even when there’s a spark, it hardly ignites into good old- fashioned, steamy, historical-romance passion. Gertrude and Richard never consummate their attraction, but they exchange letters, leading to yet another exchange of voice-over dialogue as we look at visuals of … camels. Camels traversing endless mounds of sand.

Gertrude Bell’s accomplishments and her role in history are remarkable. She climbed mountains, she crossed Arabia a half-dozen times, she published important works, she made significant archaeological findings, she relied on her extensive and unique Middle East contacts to help British soldiers traverse the deserts in World War I and she was an integral figure in the establishment of the early 20th century State of Iraq. She was a pioneer on myriad levels.

“Queen of the Deserts” tells us this, but in the manner of a desert-dry historical paper adapted to film. The result is a well-made invitation to nod off.


IFC Films presents a film written and directed by Werner Herzog. Rated PG-13 (for brief nudity and some thematic elements). Running time: 127 minutes. Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center and on demand.

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