Review / ‘Queen of the Desert’ (PG) ***

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queen-of-the-desert-movieIN a Yorkshire church, on a stained-glass window memorialising Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, CBE (1868-1926) the inscription reads:

Versed in the learning of the east and of the west

Servant of the state

Scholar Poet Historian Antiquary Gardener Mountaineer Explorer Lover of nature of flowers and of animals

Incomparable friend sister daughter.

To those words, add “unflustered British intelligence agent travelling unarmed among tribal conflicts in the Middle East during World War I, instrumental in founding the kingdoms of Jordan and Iraq” and you have a comprehensive word portrait of a quiet, determined and, above all, interesting woman.

Idiosyncratic German writer/director Werner Herzog’s first feature film for six years works hard with spoken word and moving images to do Gertrude honour.

Nicole Kidman playing her appears in virtually every shot and (reportedly) persuading Herzog to shoot the unscripted sequence of Gertrude cooling off in the bath under a palm tree surrounded by desert sand!

Among wonderful Middle Eastern locations, Herzog has made an agreeable, unhurried film with the air of authenticity that has long been his trademark. It implies that neither the diplomat (James Franco) nor the army officer (Damian Lewis) whom she loved shared her bed.

The screenplay obviously draws on Gertrude’s letters and diaries. In “Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East”, three American academics recently called her “one of the few representatives of His Majesty’s Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection.”

At Palace Electric from June 2

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Dougal Macdonald
“CityNews” film reviewer

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