Someone give Nicole Kidman a hug. The once great actress who was racking up performances under brilliant directors like Stanley Kubrick, Baz Luhrmann, Noah Baumbach, and Lars von Trier has been stuck in a remarkable slump in recent years. Whether in pleasant but forgettable films (Lion, Paddington, The Secret in their Eyes) or some of the worst reviewed and nonsensical movies of the past decade (Grace of Monaco, Before I Go to Sleep), Kidman has been delivering work that feels like a much less experienced actress. Her recent stint on HBO’s Big Little Lies aside, she hasn’t done anything of note since 2013 when she starred in Stoker, but all that’s about to change, since she now has the lead role in a flashy biopic directed by one of cinema’s premiere filmmakers, right? Wrong.
Remarkably, Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert, which premiered in 2015 and sat on a shelf until this weekend, is the farthest thing from a success story a movie can be. Featuring quite possibly career-worst work for everybody involved (and I’m including Robert Pattinson in that), Queen of the Desert is a remarkably boring film that fails on practically every single level.
The movie had been critically panned since its premiere two years ago, and despite this, I desperately did not want to hate this film. Herzog is a legend, and Kidman is an actress I still adore. Add James Franco, Damien Lewis, and the often underrated Robert Pattinson, and this is a recipe for success. In any other combination, this movie would be a prestige picture, a big Oscar contender. Instead, it somehow falls so beautifully on its face that its incompetence should be studied in film schools.
According to the obnoxious title cards that appear at the beginning and end of the film (because who needs visual storytelling? Who is this, Werner Herzog?), Queen of the Desert follows Gertrude Bell (Kidman), an explorer, researcher, and humanitarian traveling across the globe in the early 20th Century after the British empire put its stodgy nose in her face, because it was 100 years ago when women were only socially accepted to do two things: give birth, and die while doing it.
Oh, and how should we structure this catalogue of the life of a famous feminist explorer? By her relationship to the men around her, of course! Bell’s connections to Henry Cadogan (Franco), Charles Doughty-Wylie (Lewis), and T.E. Lawrence (Pattinson) provide the frame for the film, as Bell bounces from associate to associate while she…I’m not really sure. Gertrude doesn’t really have an arc in the film, at least not one that I could pick up on. She doesn’t change much throughout the film. She starts a passionate, romantic, loyal to a fault adventurer, and she ends the film the exact same way. The only arc she completes is the arc of time, and none of the other characters have enough screen time to make any impact (Franco, who is credited second on the poster, vanishes from the film 30 minutes in, never to return sans an obnoxious “here are the real people” segment at the end).
Despite all that, the inert story isn’t what makes Queen of the Desert such a bafflingly incompetent, and also, impossible to despise film. It’s technical incompetence is almost on the level of so-bad-they’re-good movies like The Room or Birdemic, where the failure is clearly so freed from cynicism and snark that it’s not a disheartening mess, it’s an earnest one. If Queen of the Desert were a faster paced movie, I would recommend it as a so-bad-it’s-good wonder. However, it’s a very slow film, and while earnest, it feels more like the product of very excited film students who love Terrence Malick than tried-and-true pioneers of cinema.
Every actor feels like they’re trying harder to hit their marks than to perform anything convincingly, the cinematography is a hollow imitation of masters like Lubezki, the score repeats the same 30 seconds throughout the entire film, and the editing is so sloppy that in a single minute the same exact shot is used twice, making the repeated scene feel like an obvious cut-and-paste mistake. Maybe it was a problem with the screener copy I had, but I watched this moment three times, and the same mistake popped up each time. It’s problems like this that both delegitimize and give an odd charm to Queen of the Desert. It’s barely even a real movie, and the only suspense the film bothers to offer is what simple, fixable thing is it going to do wrong next.
Queen of the Desert gets 1.5/10 Disposable Historical Boyfriends
Queen of the Desert is currently select theaters and will be available on VOD April 14, 2017.