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Can Werner Herzog’s Gertrude Bell biopic Queen of the Desert do justice to its incredible subject?

The remarkable life of the British adventurer Gertrude Bell, who was a vital voice in the shaping of the Middle East, is coming to the big screen in Werner Herzog's biopic Queen of the Desert.
Nicole Kidman as Gertrude Bell in Queen of the Desert. Courtesy Benaroya Pictures
Nicole Kidman as Gertrude Bell in Queen of the Desert. Courtesy Benaroya Pictures

Gertrude Bell had two epic romances, to be sure. But the complicated nation-builder from a British steelmaking background was so much more than that: a fearless, turn-of-the-century mountaineer conquering Alpine peaks; a desert explorer and cartographer; a spy, wartime political operative and soldier; a writer and an archaeologist who spoke six languages, including Arabic.

All that and she liked to travel with Wedgewood china.

Here’s what’s a bit worrying for fans of Bell’s legacy, though: Nicole Kidman stars as Bell in the German director Werner Herzog’s much-anticipated biopic Queen of the Desert, which is having its world premiere at the Berlinale film festival tomorrow.

In the only footage to hit the web so far, Kidman-as-Bell appears in a tent with the British actor Damian Lewis, who is playing Charles Doughty-Wylie, the subject of her second ill-fated romance (more on the first, later).

“I would never be with a man again,” she tells him breathlessly in flickering candlelight, after breaking away from a passionate kiss. “Because I lost a man.”

Some background: Bell is often referred to as the female version of her friend T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), when in truth, Lawrence could probably be remembered as a less-impressive, male Gertrude Bell.

After visiting Jerusalem in 1900, Bell became so taken with the region that she used her family’s wealth to explore Mesopotamia, a path that would continue for more than a decade and take her from Istanbul to Basra and Aleppo to Amman. Along the way she learnt the ways of the local tribes, earning their trust, and became devoted to the notion of Arab self-determination. She succeeded where others had tried and failed — all the more astonishing considering she was a woman.

Bell was instrumental in redrawing post-First World War political borders after the British invasion of Mesopotamia and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, particularly when it came to shaping Iraq.

And so it rankles that the first glimpse of Herzog’s project has his heroine talking to a man about losing a man, particularly considering she was so often frustrated by the barriers she faced not being one.

Georgina Howell is the former Sunday Times writer behind the brilliant 2006 biography Queen of the Desert (the book was titled Daughter of the Desert in the United Kingdom). Howell, who has written a follow-up, A Woman in Arabia, The Writings of the Queen of the Desert, due to be released later this year, doesn’t have to think for long before hitting on her favourite Bell quote, from the early 1920s.

“When she was sitting at her desk in Cairo and sending Lawrence off to look for a leader capable of uniting the tribes in Arab revolt,” says Howell, Bell griped: “One can do little more than sit behind a desk and chafe if one is of my sex, devil take it.”

Due to the breadth of Bell’s accomplishments, Howell devoted just three chapters out of 16 to the British pioneer’s fascinating, if tragic, love life.

While on a visit to family in Tehran in 1892, Bell not only fell in love with the people and culture of Persia, but also with a British legation secretary, Henry Cadogan, who is played by James Franco in Herzog’s film. Their engagement came to nothing, however, when Bell’s father, Hugh, objected on the grounds that Cadogan was a suspected gambler. A heartbroken Bell returned to England and in a letter to her stepmother Florence wrote of having no regrets: “Some people live all their lives and never have this wonderful thing ... only one may cry just a little when one has to turn away and take up the old narrow life again.”

Cadogan died of pneumonia a year later. The scene with Lewis is a nod to Bell’s second agonising liaison, in her 40s, with the unhappily married British army veteran Doughty-Wylie.

Howell is among those who believes that frustration over their deadlocked situation led the major to seek out his death on a Gallipoli battlefield in 1915.

“He walked into the oncoming Turkish fire and he didn’t carry a gun because he knew he would be shot,” she says. “I think his life had become impossible; either his wife was threatening suicide or his love Gertrude was threatening suicide. There was nowhere to go, so I think he did commit suicide. I think one can say that fairly surely.”

Bell died alone a decade later in Baghdad at the age of 57, after an overdose of sleeping pills.

And here we are, talking all about the men, again.

Regardless, there are some promising signs for Queen of the Desert, shot on location in Morocco over two-and-a-half months last year. Herzog is a respected filmmaker, regarded as one of the best in the industry; he possesses a powerful cast, a gorgeous setting and so many strands of an incredible story to tell.

Robert Pattinson, who plays Lawrence, praised the German director’s dedication to the project in an interview last year.

“It’s insane because he wrote the script as well and it’s one of the most difficult scripts I’ve ever read,” said Pattinson. “Werner’s great. He’s exactly what you’d expect. He’s got so many amazing stories. He’s got insane confidence as well. I think that’s where all his creativity comes from. He’s got 100 per cent belief in himself.”

In an interview with Indiewire at the Sundance Film Festival last month, Kidman not only enthused about the project, but Bell as well, calling her a “trailblazer, extraordinary”.

“She went off and lived a life that I would only dream of doing,” Kidman said. “What she did was amazing. She did it through motivations I believe come from huge loss, so that’s fascinating in itself, too. The landscape and what the desert gave her was her salvation.”

If Herzog’s film fails to do Bell justice, there is always the first full-length documentary on her life, Letters From Baghdad, which is due out later this year.

Howell, for one, is hopeful Herzog hasn’t given Bell the “Hollywood” treatment.

“I would hope that they show Gertrude going through the most gruelling conditions,” she says. “I mean, when you know that she nearly died twice mountaineering, that she took the most horrendous risks, that she could have been murdered, or anything could have happened to her in the desert, and that she was completely fearless.”


The stars and directors linked to Bell’s biopic

For a while, it looked like both Angelina Jolie and Nicole Kidman would be playing the British pioneer Gertrude Bell on the big screen. Whatever form Werner Herzog’s take on Bell’s story turns out to be, audiences would have been treated to a much different film had Ridley Scott been at the helm.

Back in 2011 Deadline reported that Scott wanted to direct a Bell biopic written by Jeffrey Caine, who produced the screenplay for The Constant Gardener. Jolie was soon attached to the project, but it was not to be: the project appeared to have been abandoned in the ensuing years, which saw Scott’s brother Tony commit suicide and Jolie undergo a double mastectomy for breast cancer.

As for Herzog’s version, Naomi Watts was originally attached to the part of Bell, while Jude Law had been tapped to play Henry Cadogan.

Herzog’s final version brings to the big screen Kidman as Bell and James Franco as Cadogan.

* Ann Marie McQueen

Updated: February 4, 2015 04:00 AM



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