Robert Pattinson of Arabia
by DICK CHENEY
Queen of the Desert
dir. Werner Herzog
“I get very lonely,” James Franco explains early on in Queen of the Desert. Then there is this odd scene where Nicole Kidman towers over her cousin (Holly Earl) like a giant. One of the weirdest scenes in movies follows; it is how you know this is a Werner Herzog production. Nicole manhandles the poor woman and kisses her on the forehead like she is a little baby.
The film launches into Nicole’s voiceover of a letter to her father. She explains to him that James Franco is always there when you want him, and never when you don’t. If only that were true.
As he enters middle age Franco has adopted this muted seriousness that is completely amusing but also transparent. It screams, “I am acting! Isn’t this vaguely reminsicent of Robert Mitchum or something, I don’t know LOL!”
That night Franco performs a magic trick for Nicole. For some reason as he is doing this, he starts whispering. It is daytime when we see James next, and he is still talking in a soft tone of voice. You get the sense that Nicole shares a lot of qualities with his mother.
This all takes place in the desert. James kisses her in the desert outside Tehran. She tastes like dandelions and sour milk, in the desert.
Eventually he asks her to marry him, upsetting her family greatly, presumably because they don’t view James Franco as being particularly reliable. Queen of the Desert has a roundly mediocre score accompanying these events, but what makes it truly intolerable is just how much of it there is. “I am in love with your smile,” James explains, and then like ten minutes later he throws himself off a cliff.
Nicole takes this about as well as you would expect. She replaces James Franco with Damian Lewis, who is a major upgrade in pretty much every way. Unlike the vast majority of men, Lewis appears a lot more youthful when he has facial hair. One man wants to look old and looks too young. One man wants to look young and looks young.
Damian Lewis’ eyes are soulful, maybe too soulful? He should just do his character from Billions in every movie, since Queen of the Desert can’t possibly take its story the least bit seriously. Herzog’s gift is turning reality into a surreal fantasy, but there is nothing interesting in the story of Gertrude Bell that he really understands, so it is all just molting, begging and staring.
Lewis doesn’t do much more than stroke Nicole’s hair. He says he wants to be with her, but he tells her his wife would commit suicide if he ever left. Gertrude seems sad but maybe not as depressed as she might otherwise have been. She was guilty of love once, but never again.
Queen of the Desert doesn’t get good until we come to the most amusing casting of time: Robert Pattinson as T.E. Lawrence. Since Lawrence was gay or asexual, his charisma with Nicole is not much at all. “I’m not sure the right man for you has been born yet,” he tells her, in an accent so bad it would be laughable if Pattinson did not have look of a sad, wounded puppy on his face. You want to slap the shit out of it.
“I’m under you of course,” Lawrence tells Nicole, even though this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I mean, she doesn’t even speak the language and she is absolutely boy-crazy, how would she even have time for diplomatic relations. The score changes to from ten percent cultural appropriation to one hundred percent; all the Arab characters stand around in worship of Nicole Kidman. “You were great in Far and Away!” they scream over the din of their camels.
Lawrence has his picture taken with some really adorable lion cubs and Winston Churchill. It is made evident that the reason all these people are in the middle east is because they find England absolutely stifling. The last line of Queen of the Desert is an Arab king saying, “You know, she really is the unofficial Queen of the Desert” and then some text comes on the screen, like there is more information that will supplement our understanding of where Nicole Kidman is in her life now. We know everything we need to by that time.
Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find an archive of his writing in these pages here.
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