The trailer for Queen of the Desert sums up the feel of the movie quite accurately; sweeping, romantic and exotic whilst trying to maintain a certain degree of seriousness that comes with depicting a true story. In fact it was the autobiography aspect that drew me to the movie before I watched it.
For those who aren't too familiar with the Queen of the Desert, here are some keenly researched and extremely credible facts (from Wikipedia) about Gertrude Bell. Gertrude Bell was an English writer, traveller, archaeologist and politician who helped in establishing the dynasties of modern day Jordan and Iraq. She studied modern history at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford College obtaining a first class honours in an era when few women received higher education.
The movie begins, if I may so, Jane Austen style with Bell's mother attempting to discourage Bell from scaring away potential suitors with her keen intellect. We are then treated to some shockingly boring (and some simply shocking) young men trying to impress the evidently bored Gertrude. It is clear from the very beginning that Gertrude is not the average English debutante waiting get married and has an appetite for adventure far beyond her lavish life in England.
Gertrude Bell is portrayed by Nicole Kidman, who does an excellent job in balancing both the sweeping romanticism required by the style of the movie together with the robust intelligence that Gertrude Bell was known for. James Franco, Robert Pattinson and Damien Lewis portray Henry Cadogan, T.E Lawrance and Charles Doughtie-Wylie respectively.
It was unclear from my ten minute research whether Henry Cadogan and Gertrude Bell were indeed close in real life or not, however my well informed guess would be that they weren't the doting couple the movie described. Be it a true representation or not Franco plays the role of a somewhat broody but charismatic and intelligent young man who appreciates Bell for her curiosity and sense of adventure. Their romance is very much storybook like with passionate kisses and melancholy words framed by the outlandish desert landscapes.
Damien Lewis plays the role of the very amicable but not so faithful to his wife Charles Doughtie-Wylie, the British Consul of the Ottoman Empire. More mature than Cadogan, but just as smitten by Bell, we see another romance unfold. Wikipedia tells me that this affair; unlike the Cadogan-Bell affair ; was very much a real one. Finally Robert Pattinson plays the famous young T.E.Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) who worked alongside Bell in the establishment of the Hashemite Dynasties.
My friend that I watched the movie with enjoyed it and asked me to give it a good review. And personally, I appreciated the movie as well, however, the movie suffered slightly in terms of over-romanticising and lacking variation. The movie wafts over the breath-taking landscapes and different stages of Bell's life but does not have any moments that breaks though and grabs the audience by surprise. What I'm trying to say is that it was a bit like eating a lemon tart that wasn't tangy enough, dulling you into a charming lull of magical landscapes and soft words.
Having said that, I did enjoy the movie. I turned up to the movie in a mad post work rush of making it on time and doing a stopover at the post office on the way. And I still managed to watch it without losing focus in my unfocused panting state.
The scenery of the desert itself was stunning and celebrates Gertrude Bell generously- which was the ultimate aim of the movie. It has also inspired me to go and hunt down some YouTube videos in getting to know more about the Ottoman Empire and Hashemite dynasties. Definitely a movie to unwind, relax and get some insight into a true life heroine.
I leave you with the words from Bells' obituary written by her peer D.G. Hogarth which I felt captured the essence of the movie quite well as well.
No woman in recent time has combined her qualities – her taste for arduous and dangerous adventure with her scientific interest and knowledge, her competence in archaeology and art, her distinguished literary gift, her sympathy for all sorts and condition of men, her political insight and appreciation of human values, her masculine vigour, hard common sense and practical efficiency – all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit".