The subject of “Queen of the Desert,” writer-director Werner Herzog’s first narrative feature since 2009, is Gertrude Bell, an Englishwoman who, in the years after World War I, used her expertise in Arab affairs and culture to help Winston Churchill negotiate the redrawn borders of the modern Middle East. Although the German filmmaker has been turning his hand almost exclusively to documentary lately, with such nonfiction meditations on deep subjects as “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World,” the real-life Gertrude (here played by Nicole Kidman) makes a worthy subject for fact-based drama. Scholar, mountain-climber, fearless explorer and feminist ahead of her time, she lived a life worth letting the world in on.
“This is her story,” reads the on-screen title that introduces “Desert,” before launching into a tale devoted — at least for the film’s first half-hour — to her abortive romance with a low-level diplomat in the British Embassy in Tehran, where Gertrude had gone to get away from the stultifying mores of England. (Seems an odd choice, but there you have it.) It’s another odd choice to devote so much time to a love story, in a movie that ostensibly was made to celebrate the accomplishments of its subject, and not just her love life. Yet another questionable decision is casting James Franco as that lover, Henry Cadogan. Franco looks way too young compared with Kidman, for one thing, and his British accent comes and goes, like the sirocco. (Jude Law was cast, but bowed out because of scheduling problems.)
Once it gets going, “Desert” does delve into Gertrude’s career, although it’s not always clear what, exactly, that career was. Shots of her using surveyors’ instruments and taking photographs of the desert, where she blusters, bribes and sweet-talks her way out of various pickles with belligerent Bedouins, are mixed in with way too many slow-motion shots of pretty scenery and scenes of Gertrude writing, perusing and reciting letters to and from her beloved Henry, and later to and from her replacement beloved, the very married British Army officer Charles “Richard” Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis).
Though Kidman delivers a workmanlike performance, the story manages to be soppy and ploddingly dull, told via a screenplay that drives home the fact that it’s not really about momentous events, but momentous feelings. “My heart belongs to no one now but the desert,” says Gertrude, after her father has forbidden her to marry Henry. Later, as the soon-to-be-crowned King Faisal I of Iraq (Younes El Bouab), tells Gertrude, “No one in the Western world knows the heart of the Bedouin better than you.”
For a movie with so much heart, “Queen of the Desert” is a remarkably bloodless enterprise.
PG-13. At area theaters. Available on demand April 14. Contains brief nudity, sensuality and mild rude language. 129 minutes.