While modern events conspire to ensure that we understand at least a little of the Arab world, it needs to be recalled that - for centuries confined within the Ottoman Empire - that world was very much a closed book to Westerners, and all the more tantalising for that. In the Late Victorian and Edwardian eras, that was all beginning to change, as the Ottoman Empire began to collapse and British and other Empires were muscling in. British aristocrat Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) fell into that period and was - by some near-miracle - at the heart of the process referred to. And no matter how hard it tries, this film cannot really inform us how Bell came to be regarded by Churchill as the most influential woman in the British Empire. And, since documentaries and biographies can do that, the film must be seen as something of a failure in its own terms.
However, (and this is a big however), where Herzog wins us over is with the amazing way in which Nicole Kidman's Bell (admittedly better looking than the original) carries all before her, clearly proving so stunning, awe-inspiring and irresistible to most of the influential men she meeets (be they British or Arab) that they a) mostly cannot help but take her seriously, b) end up respecting her and c) fall for her romantically in a big way! Pictures of the real Bell suggest she was not lacking in magnetism in her looks. but she clearly must also have had something far more imbued by her personailty, and this movie goes at least some way to showing us that, if not enlightening us properly as to what it entailed.
And, stunningly, we are shown how the regal nature of Bell develops in line with her growing joy and delight in everything the East has to offer. This is interesting, given that her desire to be there, to have that adventure, came before her expertise. Hence in her first scenes in Persia, Bell is wide-eyed and still rather ignorant, but also entirely open and willing to any influences that come her way, absorbing all of that and growing in stature as she does so. Since this first part of her education in things eastern comes in a package with head-over-heals romantic love and intellectual oneness with James Franco's (admittedly cumbersomely-accented) British diplomat Henry Cadogan, the first half of the film works extremely powerfully as a romance.
At this stage of the film, we in the audience empathise powerfully, as we also gasp at the sheer wonder of Persia - its birdsong in scented gardens, languid pools of water, its poetry, art, architecture and ancient civilisation. We are also drawn strongly into the developing attraction between soulmates that is portrayed, and are thus hit severely when Bell learns that she will never see Cadogan again, much as she still adores him.
I nearly lost control of my emotions at this point, I'll admit, so potent was the empathy inspired with the character's emptiness and misery.
Fortunately, this was not to be the last love Bell experienced, though tragedy again struck; but by this part of the film - Kidman's Bell is astounding us with her utter lack of fear as she goes on exploring deeper and deeper into unknown Arab lands. Again it is entrancing scenically, though here we fuly encounter the film's failure to make us understand how Bell achieved what she did. This is then a much less successful second half, despite it's unquestionable beauty of production, and the amazing separate situations it depicts. What is lacking is the flow of narrative that enlightens us more fully. The dots are just not connected here.
Robert Pattinson's take on TE Lawrence is more down-to-earth than Peter O'Toole's all those years ago, but the portrayal is satisfying enough, though the film scarcely touches on how it must really have been to have two such powerful personalities working together. Given that both came together with Churchill and others, as the film hints, we need far more than Herzog is able to offer us in this respect.
Hence, for neither the first nor the last time a biopic leaves us longing to learn more about its hero. Clearly, that is as much a failure of a film as it is a success; but in the end I've opted to give "Queen of the Desert" a 9 for what it hints at, if failing to fully present.