Kidman is playing Gertrude Bell in this biographical drama. Born and raised in Britain, she always sought something more in life, the opportunity to spread her wings and see the world. So having persuaded her father, she sets of to Tehran to join her uncle, who was the British Ambassador there. It is there she meets the beguiling Henry Cadogan (James Franco) – and through her never-ending list of contacts and allies, including the likes of T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) and Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis), she was summoned to Cairo during the First World War, where she eventually went on to become a pivotal, influential figure holding immense political power in the shaping of Britain’s imperial policy in the Middle East, with the locals affectionately dubbing her the Queen of the Desert.
First and foremost, Herzog’s screenplay is nothing short of abysmal. Thing is, when Herzog speaks lines such as those he has written, given his droll, deadpan approach, it can sound almost poetic. However when other actors deliver his lines, they can’t pull them off in the same way and it sounds mawkish and ridiculous. It’s not helped by Franco’s attempt at an English accent either, which is more akin to the likes of Ross from Friends when he gives it a shot in the television series. It takes the viewer out of the story and cheapens it accordingly.
Talking of which, the romantic narrative between Bell and Cadogan also comes with its flaws, and seeks only in undermining and devaluing her impressive achievements too. It’s difficult to judge quite whether Herzog is being sincere with this offering, or mildly tongue-in-cheek. If the latter, then fair play, this picture is really funny on occasion. If the former, then oh dear, because then you queston whether this film should be comical at all. There’s one moment when Cadogan beckons Bell into a building, and says, “this is the tower of silence”. You just can’t help but wish they’d have stayed in there a little bit longer to be honest.
Because Herzog is at the helm you’re constantly – and somewhat desperately – searching for a greater, significant meaning in the subtext, but in this instance it seems there is little to be found. It’s no Lawrence of Arabia, put it that way.