Queen of the Desert full movie review - A romantic yearning for the East
Opinions concerning this movie are considerably divided. I state my subjective personal opinion without claiming particular knowledge of the director's previous work or the historical period and geographical area around which the film evolves.
It is a Bildungsroman, that is a work which treats the evolution of a certain human character in time and space, or to put it in simpler terms a biographical movie. The person concerned is Gertrude Bell a charismatic British adventuress and scholar who left her comfortable circumstances in Britain to seek self-knowledge and adventure in the Arabic provinces of the moribund Ottoman Empire and was instrumental in the succession arrangements which arose after the demise of the Ottoman rule after the end of the First World War.
This is a tale of seeking self-fulfillment in the unknown, about the longing a Westerner feels for the (Middle) East. It strikes a chord with the present urge in rich Western countries to imagine the East as a place of spiritual wisdom and purity uncontaminated from the over-sophistication of Western civilization. I wonder if Gertrude Bell was alive today whether she would be a yoga enthusiast or a volunteer in a NGO for refugees...
The Gertrude Bell I am speaking about is the one portrayed in the movie by Nicole Kidman, not the historical one about whom I do not know enough to offer a sound opinion. The heroine is a troubled soul unlucky in her love life and uncomfortable with the rigid etiquette of her social environment. She is though highly intelligent and evolves in a mastermind of intercultural communication as she learns to interact meaningfully with the rough people of Arabia without scorning or snubbing them. The British Establishment realizing her skills as a scholar and social facilitator try to enlist her to the British cause in the the Middle East.
As the drama of her life takes place the vast canvas of the historical repercussions of the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the antagonisms of the Great European powers is portrayed. She meets the fellow eccentric and adventurer T.E. Lawrence and their destinies as British expatriates and flamboyant personalities but also would be power- brokers interact. After ''Lawrence of Arabia'' every appearance of Lawrence in a movie suffers by comparison because of the striking good looks of Peter O'Toole and the inevitably secondary importance this character has compared with the limelight he enjoyed in the famous David Lean film.
Other famous historical figures such as Winston Churchill or Faysal of Mecca appear fleetingly to give an impression of period authenticity. The latter role of Gertrude Bell as politician and king-maker is understated as is her role in nation building notably of Iraq.
The landscapes are admirable as well as the costumes. Aesthetically this movie is a triumph. Many people were unhappy with the scenario and I have to admit that it is not the strong point of the work. I was moved by the search of a highly intelligent and independent woman for meaning, happiness, knowledge and love in the Middle East although one has to consider that she probably idealized the subjects of her affection. Towards the end of the movie Arab dignitaries( future kings in the making) ask her ''why an Englishwoman loves us so much?''
My impression is that this is a story about an interesting character in an interesting place during an interesting historical period. I watched it in August in an open cinema and was thrilled to leave imaginatively the Athenian metropolis for an unknown age and land.