Queen of the Desert breaks form with several other Herzog movies: A female lead character, a grand Hollywood-like production and most interesting: a different perspective on the culture-nature dichotomy and the effects of cultural distance that almost forms the core of Herzog's work.
It tells the story of Gertrude Bell (Kidman), an English writer and traveler who became more and more influential in the Middle East region through her unprecedented travels where she formed bonds with several future postcolonial leaders. Later in life she became involved in politics and helped to found several nation states (and determine its borders), along which Jordan and Iraq through the Hashemite dynasties. She worked in close cooperation with T.E. Lawrence (Pattison).
It is always interesting to see what's left out of the story: her efforts to establish the new countries were far more extreme and tiresome (plus the real reason Iraq was founded: cost-cutting by the British Empire), her witnessing of the Armenian genocide and slave trade, her actual spying role, her relative poverty, illness and depression later in life. What is paid attention to elaborately are her love interests (well played by Franco and Lewis), both ending in tragedy. But too much are we watching a watered-down, Hollywood interpretation of Bell by Kidman and not the real strong and intelligent woman she obviously had to be handling the complexities of deal making in the region.
Yet some typical trademarks of Herzog still shine through: travel to unknown, unmapped places where people find their cultural beliefs and visions on reality tested. In Herzog's world, venturing into nature from the cultural boundaries of existence always leads to suffering and destruction, mankind being unable to conquer the forces of nature. What makes this movie then atypical in the work of Herzog is that Bell finds solace and fulfillment through that process. Also atypical is the time we spent inside: these scenes inside the bastions of power are unfortunately not the best in the movie, and in the landscape scenes, Herzog seems much more on his turf.
Herzog always saw himself as resisting the banality of the images film is projecting, but here he somewhat contributes to that process. Despite that Queen of the Desert is still very watchable, informative and yes, even entertaining.
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