Thursday, 2 June 2016

Queen Of The Desert

In this era when we lament the paucity of meaty roles for women in films, surely the story of Gertrude Lothian Bell provides the ideal opportunity to redress that situation in at least one movie. The British woman Bell played a significant role in the establishment of various of the Middle Eastern Arabian Kingdoms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An extraordinary feat for her gender, in that part of the world, at that time.

As far as I can see, Bell's story has only featured once previously in film, in 1983's 'Al-mas Ala Al-Kubra' which appears to have originated in the former Soviet Union.

So 'Queen Of The Desert' is a long overdue effort from the Hollywood or British film communities.

What a pity, therefore, that it is so burdened with deficiencies. Nicole Kidman plays Bell but it is not one of her better performances. She is less than convincing in the film most of the time. Less convincing still is James Franco badly miscast as a Third Secretary in the British Embassy in Tehran. Franco is unable to sustain a British accent for more than two syllables at a time making his renditions of Omar Khayyam's poems sound very mid-Atlantic indeed. Also unconvincing is Robert Pattinson playing no less an historical giant than Col T E Lawrence ('of Arabia').

The film is beset with needless errors or inconsistencies. When Franco first translates some Khayyam for Kidman he does so by correctly reading the Farsi script from right to left. Later, when he teaches Kidman some Farsi Franco incorrectly reads from left to right. Bell was a prolific writer which Kidman portrays throughout by writing right handed except for one late sequence when she slips into her own natural lefthandedness. Little errors like that can diminish much better films than this one.

Bell's story told straight would have been fascinating but instead this film is presented as a series of romances whether platonically with others or with the cultures she encounters. The British Embassies and Consulates are portrayed as opulent palaces fit for the Monarchs rather than the clerical functionaries who worked in them.

The most positive aspect is that the film contains some stunning images but that is barely sufficient for the lost opportunity it represents.


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