Directed by Werner Herzog
by Francis Friel, The Projectionist
Any new release from Werner Herzog ought to be met with a parade. He releases three documentaries in a single year? Three parades. Anything the man does is a cause for celebration.
But in the eight years since the release of his previous narrative feature, he got off-balance. He worked on perfecting the episodic, sliced-and-diced documentary format he's been playing with for decades, while in the process losing something integral to what made so much of his past work noteworthy: his passion.
2015's Queen of the Desert, finally up for a full theatrical (and VOD) release this month, is a chore. Beautifully staged and thoroughly researched, it lacks any kind of momentum or engagement with its subject, reminding me constantly of another recent release, Amma Asante's A United Kingdom. A Hallmark Channel-level epic political biopic that feels like an adaptation of an encyclopedia entry.
Nicole Kidman does her best (I can only assume) with what she's given, a role that could've been a career highlight. As Gertude Bell, she's a rarity in Herzog's filmography, a laser-focused individual with a grand scheme who nonetheless gives us almost zero indication why she cares at all about what she's doing, other than that she's bored and hates living at home. There's a better movie in there somewhere if that's all he was gonna do with it.
Bell meets and falls in love with Henry Cadogan, played by James Franco using a British accent that borders on a hate-crime, if not outright terrorism. But he's the best option for a romantic interest Bell's got since all of her other potential suitors are weirdos or pervy little dirtbags. Is Herzog channeling Coppola here, a nod to his Dracula with the dorky would-be boyfriends and trainwreck accents? Given what other choices he makes throughout this pile, I wouldn't be surprised.
The romance between Bell and Cadogan, the movie's end credits tell us, was lost to history for over 100 years. And given how relatively little screen-time Franco is given, I kind of don't even get why it's included here other than to pad out the run time. Franco is in, he's out, the rest of the film constantly reminds us he was around for a while but never gives us a real reason to care about him.
Robert Pattinson, god help us, fares much better. He's lively and funny as the goofball "schoolboy" T.E. Lawrence. With roughly the same amount of time onscreen, he makes three times the impression Franco does, including a great campfire scene of Bell and Lawrence drinking and laughing that has 95% of the film's heart and humanity crammed into it.
With strangely stilted cinematography, all-over-the-place performances, drab and awkward narrative conceits and the overall feel of a work by a less-skilled director, I kept asking myself why Herzog was attracted to this story in the first place. He does nothing interesting with it, instead filling out the film's length with random bits of melodrama that go nowhere and plot points that all seem poised to shoot the movie in another direction entirely before immediately settling back down into boring "and then this happened" storytelling.
Herzog, you're one of the best we have. We know we won't have you forever. Please don't waste your own time with this nonsense. Learn from your buddy Malick's track record. Reign it in or go bananas. In-between doesn't suit you.