There are golden periods of history, usually ten or twenty years when everything is just perfect, or as perfect as is possible in this vale. I lived through one: 1958-1968, when being a kid in America was marvelous. Sorry you guys missed it. Werner Herzog’s movie, Queen of the Desert, is set in another one of those golden periods, from the end of Victoria’s reign to the First World War, when the Brits ruled practically everything, the sun never set on the Empire, pip pip cheerio stiff upper lip wot wot, and fin de siècle English upper crust lower middle aristocrats could traverse the tottering Ottoman Empire with quite a degree of impunity…until it all changed, as golden decades are wont to do.
The movie depicts Gertrude Bell, a real life lower middle aristocrat who gets it into her head between cotillions to go do something adventurous. Given the bunch of lower middle aristocrat idiot suitors her Mum keeps throwing at her, I am sympathetic. (By the way, Mum is played by Jenny Agutter. Jenny Agutter! Remember her from Logan’s Run, An American Werewolf in London? Oh yeah, you remember. Seen her popping up quite a bit lately, including Captain America: Winter Soldier. Nice). Gertrude’s Dad suggests a trip to Tehran, which isn’t the crazy idea it would be today; back then it would be like a trip to Rio: exotic, interesting, an incomprehensible language, somewhat dangerous, but civilized.
So, she goes, sponsored by her quite delightful British Consul uncle, portrayed by Mark Lewis Jones, who has the best lines in the movie (except for one short stint at the beginning when Nick Waring as Sir Mark Sykes delivers a series of insults worthy of Peter Capaldi in In the Loop). There, she falls in love with Henry Cadogan (portrayed by James Franco in the wooden, non-expressive acting style he perfected as Green Goblin), who ends up killing himself, and then Gertrude falls in love with Major Charles Doughty-Wylie (played by Damien Lewis…you know, Captain Winters in Band of Brothers) who volunteers for Gallipoli, which is pretty much suicide…hmm. Mayhaps those idiot suitors back in merry ole dodged a bullet?
Anyways, grief-stricken because of driving men to suicide, she takes off for the deserts of the Middle East, meeting Druze and Bedouins and Lawrence of Arabia and Ottoman Lieutenants and single-handedly changing the course of Arab history…well, no. As much as Herzog wants you to believe that, just ain’t true. Bell was one of many persons involved in the modern shaping of the Arab peninsula, including at least one other woman, Lady Anne Blunt, who reached the city of Ha’il before her.
Nicole Kidman portrays Gertrude from about age 17 to well into her forties with nary a whiff of extra makeup or softened lens, at least that I could detect, and that’s nice. She’s a queen in her own right and does a rather excellent job of idealizing and overblowing the heroic woman-hear-me-roar aspect of Bell that director Werner Herzog is obviously intending. Which is a lovely 21st Century notion, but Pax Britannica was more responsible for Bell’s safe travels than anything. That, and the tolerance–and amusement–of the Druze and Bedouins.