Of all the stories surrounding one of the last remaining maverick superstar directors, only one of Werner Herzog’s many legends involves a car accident. Several years ago, Herzog is said to have pulled a dazed and confused Joaquin Phoenix from the wreckage of a totalled automobile in the Hollywood Hills, in doing so adding another layer to a mythology in which wild incident is a constant companion. His latest film, Queen of the Desert, in which Nicole Kidman portrays feted Middle East explorer Gertrude Bell, (sort of) adds another strapline to that same legacy.
Premiering in competition at this year’s Berlinale, Queen of the Desert presents something of an outlier in the Herzog canon. Besides recent collaborations with Nicolas Cage and Christian Bale, Herzog is a director who has rarely worked with superstar names, or especially mainstream narrative frames. Yet here he takes on a weighty Hollywood cast – Kidman, James Franco, Homeland’s Damian Lewis – in what possesses all the hallmarks of a classic ‘prestige picture’. The presence of a wincing Robert Pattinson as T.E. Lawrence also evokes the spectre of Queen’s most obvious comparator, Lawrence of Arabia, mining as it does the same period of history – the breakdown of colonial control over the Middle East, coinciding with World War One – as well as the use of sparse Bedouin landscape for breathtaking widescreen cinema.
There, though, is where comparisons with David Lean’s sweltering epic end. For where the latter utilised spectacular landscapes for a story of colonial and emotional desolation, Herzog instead mounts a wildly misjudged tale of a remarkable woman apparently defined by her subservience to men. Posed as an adventurous spirit craving escape from her stultifying aristocratic life, Kidman’s Bell travels to Tehran, where she embarks on a love affair with James Franco’s enigmatic diplomat, only to lose him in tragic circumstances. By far the most torturous segment of this litany of howlers: watching Kidman and Franco engage in a kind of Mills & Boon-off, all Persian poetry and stoic rictus nobility, made increasingly preposterous by Franco’s maddening accent work.
That things get better is a case of damning with faint praise. After Bell’s fascination with what would later form Jordan and Iraq is dismissed as her now ‘belonging only to the desert’, her quest to understand the region’s tribes is met with exasperation by the British military establishment; with the exception of Lewis’ wry commander, whose carefree bonhomie brings her back from her emotional isolation. A relationship apparently based on nothing except a shared love of mischief, it again detracts from the crux of a fascinating story, as well as drawing Herzog away from his auteurist bread and butter: the rapture of people facing extreme emotional and physical challenges, the hallmarks of all his best work, from Fitzcarraldo to Grizzly Man.
Along the way, specks of textbook Herzog emerge through the blustering sandstorm. Mostly emanating from stunning floating camerawork; Kidman and Franco’s attempts at some nookie on a rooftop is interrupted by a buzzard; the camera swivelling towards it in a manner reminiscent of the infamous iguana scene in Bad Lieutenant. The combination of poetry and imagery in the later desert scenes, meanwhile, hints at much wilder, better film. And yet by throwing in some of the clunkiest dialogue imaginable – “Did you just call me Gertude?” springs to mind – and by veering wildly between historical commentary, vapid romance and awkward comedy, Herzog has created by far the greatest failure of his career; not to mention another car crash to add to his résumé.