Queen of the Desert: the film

As I mentioned in my post about the book Queen of the Desert, a biography of Gertrude Bell, I finally got around to reading the book after seeing the biopic directed by Werner Herzog and starring Nicole Kidman. I didn’t mind the film; my mother, having read the book, didn’t love it but didn’t hate it; having read the book I am increasingly annoyed by the film.

The good things:

I think Kidman did well with the script she was given. I loved that her hair was often messy, as was entirely appropriate.

I quite liked Robert Pattinson as Lawrence, a thankfully minor role given that in the period the film focusses on, that’s all he had in Bell’s life.

I really liked discovering that much of it was filmed in Morocco and Jordan – even though Bell didn’t get to Morocco, at least they made an effort to go something vaguely desert-y, right?

I like the very existence of this film. Perhaps settling for second best isn’t a good idea, but there are so few films about awesome historical women that getting one at all is, I feel, something to be celebrated. This doesn’t mean that I’m not going to demand better, though, since…

The bad things:

Too much emphasis on romance. Seriously. I know I said that Howell’s book suffers from the same problem, but at least there she goes on to talk about the enormous amount of stuff Bell achieved aside from an unhappy lovelife. The film frames much of Bell’s actions as spurred on by the loss of her first love – spuriously represented as definitely suicide.

The lack of historical accuracy. SERIOUSLY. I fully understand the need to sometimes condense events etc etc when making a film, but there were decisions made here that had ZERO justification. Just one example is that when she’s captive in Hayyil, the film changes the relationships between the teenaged Amir and the other people trying to make decisions. I hate, hate, the dumbing down of history in films. It’s inexcusable.

The lack of context. The opening scene is of men sitting around a smoky table – including Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia – drawing lines on a map of Mesopotamia. One of them is pontificating and another, later revealed to be Dick Doughty-Wylie, slyly says he knows where the man got his info. This man then goes on a horrific misogynistic rant about Bell that turns out to be lifted from a real letter of the time, but that’s not explained and instead the viewer – especially the female viewer – is greeted with this random moment of hatred that’s really quite unpleasant. And the rest of Bell’s life isn’t very well contextualised either, focussing on her love life and then some of her adventures in the desert, with little about her later life – what was arguably her most important work post-WW1 with, you know, drawing the boundaries of Jordan and Iraq, and being instrumental in getting Faisal elected/appointed/acclaimed as king of Iraq.


It’s a film with a famous cast about an historical woman. That’s excellent. But we need to do better.

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