Queen of the Desert

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
Queen of the Desert Movie Poster Image
Strong female character in otherwise dull, lifeless drama.
  • PG-13
  • 2017
  • 110 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

The movie champions Gertrude Bell but is slightly unclear regarding her achievements. The closing credits crawl suggests that while she did her best to honor her Arabic friends, her English colleagues may have undermined her efforts.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The movie serves as an introduction to Gertrude Bell, who insisted on being her own woman/person in every situation and refused to be treated as anything less. She chose a life of education, exploration, discovery, and achievement over a life of family, which may be troubling to some viewers but inspirational to others. Either way, she's a fascinating figure, and the movie could inspire viewers to conduct further reading and research.

Violence

Brief guns and shooting; main character slightly wounded (bloody scratch). A man talks about hunting and shooting elephants. The main character is held captive for a brief time. Goat heads shown (as food).

Sex

The main character's breasts show through a wet gown while she bathes. She passionately kisses two men. Sex is suggested (nothing graphic shown). A man invites her for "fornication" in a barn.

Language

A use of "bitch."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Social drinking. Characters pass a bottle of scotch; main character wakes up with a painful hangover. Mention of "hashish."

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Queen of the Desert is director Werner Herzog's biographical drama about Gertrude Bell, an English writer and explorer. There's some violence -- including guns and shooting, with a bloody scratch shown. The main character (who's played by Nicole Kidman) is held hostage for a brief time, there's discussion of hunting elephants, and goat heads (used for food) are shown. Bell's breasts are visible as she bathes while wearing a white gown. She also kisses two men, and sex is suggested but not shown. Another man invites her for "fornication" in a barn. She drinks from a bottle of scotch and wakes up with a painful hangover. Other social drinking is shown, and "hashish" is mentioned. The word "bitch" is used once. Though the movie is beautiful, and the main character is inspirational, the storytelling is lifeless and dull.

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What's the story?

In QUEEN OF THE DESERT, Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman) lives in England near the turn of the 20th century. She's received an excellent education at Oxford, and while her parents want her to marry, she'd rather see the world. She begins in Iran, where she meets poetry-loving Henry Cadogan (James Franco) and falls for him. Later, jilted, she dedicates herself to exploring the Middle East, learning language, writing, braving danger, and eventually becoming a kind of diplomat. She meets T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson), nearly has an affair with army officer Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis), and eventually helps Winston Churchill (Christopher Fulford) in drawing the borders between Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

Is it any good?

It's rather confounding that one of the world's boldest, most curious filmmakers could take a bold, curious subject like Gertrude Bell and make such a dull, inert (if pretty) movie about her. But Werner Herzog's Queen of the Desert sat, unreleased, for two years after poor early reviews, and it's easy to see why. In spite of the talented cast, Herzog's great eye for outdoor compositions, lush widescreen cinematography, and a dreamy score -- perhaps in an effort to recall the story's close cousin, Lawrence of Arabia -- the movie simply doesn't move.

Bell is painted as a fearless, endlessly curious woman, and it's difficult not to admire her, but aside from getting her heart broken by two clueless men, not much of consequence happens to her from scene to scene. In one sequence, she's held prisoner for several weeks at the whim of an Emir, but she doesn't look any the worse for wear after she gives him a withering comment and walks out. Many scenes are set up -- in one, she receives a magnificent "stolen" horse as a gift -- and then dropped (she trades it for camels, offscreen, with no drama or consequences). Perhaps someday, Ms. Bell will receive a movie worthy of her legacy.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Queen of the Desert's violence. Despite the talk of violence, how much is actually shown? How intense is it? What effect does it have?

  • Is Gertrude Bell a role model? Why or why not?

  • What makes her so open to learning about and understanding other cultures? Why are others so scared, or violent, toward others?

  • How does this movie compare to other biographical movies about powerful women? How many can you think of?

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