Queen of the Desert is based on real life figure Gertrude Bell, played here by Nicole Kidman. Bell was an important figure in shaping the Middle East as we know it now, her unique knowledge of desert culture making her instrumental in the drawing up of borders following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The movie begins with her as a defiant young woman looking for adventure, and finding it when she finds herself in Tehran and in love with a junior diplomat (James Franco). The movie then follows her through the next decade or so of her life, as she defies all convention and ventures out to the desert to study the Bedouin culture.
Along the way, she makes the acquaintance of a certain T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson), who most might know better as Lawrence of Arabia. And she also catches the eye of married consul Charles Doughty-Wiley (Damian Lewis), with whom she once again considers the possibility of love beyond the dunes. The movie, though ostensibly a study of a self-possessed woman who forged her own path through history, seems intent on defining the character as a product of her relationships with men. Though it spends a lot of time in the desert, the movie devotes itself more to the relatively uninteresting romantic travails of this historical figure.
Gertrude Bell is a figure of great narrative potential. Any single episode of her life could probably serve as material for a feature film. This was a woman who ventured out on her own into foreign, inhospitable territory. She got to know cultures that the powers-at-be at the time considered purely alien and hostile. The film makes the mistake of tackling too much of her life story, taking an episodic structure that doesn't allow for much reflection. It just keeps moving on, the desert vistas sweeping by without much meaning attached to them.
So much of this film is given over to the character's brief forays into romance. This is not ideal to begin with, but the film makes it even worse by making them out to be so tepid. There is drama inherent to the setting, and the acting is good enough that it isn't painful, but it isn't enough to overcome the shallowness of these onscreen pairings. Like everything else in this story, the romances don't stick, their effect blowing away as the movie moves on to the next thing.
The shadow of Lawrence of Arabia looms large over this film, and that's not just because T.E. Lawrence is actually in it. The film seems designed to be somewhat of a tribute to Lean's epic, the score and the images at times evoking the classic. It is a comparison that does not benefit this movie. It just feels so much smaller, and so much more reserved. The film presents largeness in its construction, but the story just doesn't bear that out. The acting is all very competent, Nicole Kidman doing a fine job in a lead role that's kind of written to be opaque. Damien Lewis and Robert Pattinson are very good in their respective roles, in small ways showing very different kinds of admiration for the lead character.
Queen of the Desert isn't a very exciting movie. This is strange, because it is directed by Werner Herzog, and the director tends to deliver excitement in spades through unusual choices in tone and delivery. But this movie seems to only strive to be tasteful, to be the kind of film that doesn't ruffle any feathers. And this is the worst possible outcome for a movie inspired by this subject. Gertrude Bell ruffled plenty of feathers, and the movie's biggest failure is in failing to reflect that.