Gertrude Bell had a pretty unconventional life, particularly as a woman, in early 20th century. She was a traveler, writer, archaeologist, explorer, cartographer, political attaché and a spy for the British Empire in the Middle East. She played a significant role in shaping the politics of the Middle East and drew up the borders of modern Jordan as well as Iraq. Think of more or less a female Lawrence of Arabia. Queen of the Desert has her life before WWI at its center, in particular the two tragic love stories she had.
The movie opens in 1914, in a dark meeting room full of important characters from British political history: Winston Churchill. T. E. Lawrence aka Lawrence of Arabia. Lieutenant Colonel Mark Sykes from Foreign Office in Amman. Charles Doughty-Wylie, the British Consul in Damascus. The Ottoman Empire aka “the sick man of Europe” is slowly dying. And the British is ready to take over the areas the Empire has controlled for the last few centuries in the Middle East — a history, as a citizen of Turkey, I know very closely. While the men are talking about how to carve up the Middle East, we hear about “the woman” who knows the region well.
We now go back 12 years and meet “the woman.” Gertrude Lowthian Bell, having graduated from Oxford, is desperate to get out of her boring life on the large family estate and explore the world. Her father sends her to Tehran where Gertrude’s uncle is the ambassador of the British Empire. The embassy’s third secretary Henry Cadogan is assigned to be Gertrude’s guardian during her visit: Henry shows her a few card tricks and teaches her Persian.They read Khayyam together.
They fall in love.
When her parents do not give her permission to marry Henry, Gertrude goes home to persuade them. It turns out Henry is not only a gambler but has also accumulated some heavy debt. While Gertrude does not give up on her love, Henry takes his own life. This is one critical juncture in Bell’s life that she decides her heart will belong to “no one but the desert.”
We meet Richard, the British Consul in Damascus, when Gertrude meets with him and Lieutenant Colonel Sykes in the latter’s office in Amman about her plans to go to the middle of Arabia to do archeological research and study the Bedouins. The way the two men sit and the way they talk to Gertrude hint about how different characters they are. Sykes, speaking in his formal ways, highlights the fact that Bell is a “woman” traveling alone in the middle of war and that “silly business” is not going to happen. Richard, on the other hand, immediately realizes Bell has already made up her mind and she will never give up so he just tries to understand her.
“What brings you here? What are your intentions?”
Richard is obviously intrigued by this beautiful, clever and headstrong woman at first sight.
Gertrude travels in the desert, visits Petra — one of the most magical places I have ever visited in my life — and makes friends with Lawrence of Arabia who tells her that he is not sure if the man for her has been born yet.
Not so fast, Mr. Lawrence.
Back from her first desert adventure, Gertrude pays a visit to the British Consul to let him know she is now planning to go visit the Druzis. As much as Richard finds her plan dangerous, he never says “don’t go.” He just invites her to dinner.
There is a striking contrast between the two women at the dinner table: While Gertrude has a lively conversation with Richard about the Druzis, Judith is portrayed as being dead bored with the conversation and cannot find anything else to say other than if Gertrude would like more couscous. As much as this scene works in the sense that Richard enjoys Gertrude’s company and sort of flirts with her even in front of his wife, the portrayal of Ms. Doughty-Wylie is not doing justice to the real life Judith. And the feminist in me cannot keep quiet about this 🙂 From what I have read on Doughty-Wylie’s marriage, my impression is that the man was always attracted to strong and independent women, and his wife is no exception. However, it is obvious that the marriage is not a happy union during Gertrude’s visit with them and Richard seems to be falling for this strong and independent woman now.
One of the most beautiful scenes in the movie is one where Richard gives Gertrude a stallion that he has stolen from the Turkish authorities for her with a real fun trick that I will not spoil for you here. Richard has a few tricks under his sleeve and he is a delicious flirt.
And as Gertrude says laughing:
“So… Your excellency, British consul Richard Doughty-Wylie…”
he completes her sentence like he wants to complete her in life:
“… has stolen a horse for you.”
Richard does not lose a second to show his desire for her in this scene that was made public just before the movie’s world premiere at Berlinale 2015.
Now that Richard knows Gertrude is not ready to be with another man, he avoids from any further naughty act. Still, he tells her he is “longing for her” just before she leaves for the “forbidden zone” to visit the Emir who she thinks will be a key character when the Ottoman Empire goes away.
“It will be very lonely without you.”
“You have a wife.”
“I will resettle everything… Will you write to me?”
The diary Gertrude keeps for him and Richard’s letters to her make one of the most beautiful “longing scenes” with long shots of vast desert landscape as Kidman and Lewis read the letters Bell and Doughty-Wylie wrote to each other…
“Richard… I am trying to keep you out of my thoughts but it’s strange… You’re on my mind every step of the desert.”
“My beloved… Desert has you and my heart is with you. If I was free as the perfect knight it would be more fitting to take you and kiss you…”
“Richard… It’s 1am and I can’t sleep. You’re between me and any rest.”
The letters do such a brilliant job in capturing the “longing” between them that you do not want that sequence to end. And the way they look at each other in the souk when Gertrude comes back attests to the bon between them. They both want more out of this. Alas, Richard has news. As much as he wants to resettle things he cannot at the moment because his wife threatens to take her own life should he divorce her. And now that the war is all over Europe… he has re-enlisted for active duty.
Richard promises Gertrude to take care of everything when he comes back because he would rather put a bullet in his head than live without her. It will not be long before Gertrude once again finds out her heart belongs “to no one but the desert” and a new life unfolding in front of her.
Damian Lewis talked, at Berlinale Press Conference, about a “long kissing scene” that was ultimately cut because it felt “too modern.” My hunch is that the long kiss was happening here as Richard takes Gertrude’s face into his hands as they say their good-byes before he leaves for Gallipoli.
And, hey, you may want to hear Damian talk about the kiss because he’s HILARIOUS as ever!
Oh, and what does his screen partner think about him? Here is Nicole Kidman’s shout out for Damian at the Britannia Awards:
“I remember being just stunned how he could just come in and deliver… it’s like a very quick switch that he turns on… He then also has this ability to access his heart, his emotion and out of that, and you just go “wow”.
The movie received at best mixed reviews and the reviewers bring criticism to director Werner Herzog essentially for two reasons: The first one is about the story Herzog tells. Some critics believe that the focus on Bell’s story prior to WWI is a mistake because the real Gertrude Bell Story starts after WWI as she she started working for the British Secret Service and participated in the negotiations to adjust the political borders in the region. I would say it is completely up to the director to decide what story he wants to tell. Werner Herzog, time and again, said that he did not intend to make a “biopic” but wanted to make a film about “solitude, the tragedy of love and longing.” And because Gertrude Bell had the two big loves of her life, Henry Cadogan and Charles Doughty-Wylie (or “Richard” as his close circle came to call him), before the war turned into the GREAT war, he chose to focus on THAT period of her life to tell THAT story.
The second criticism is about the characters being one-dimensional and shallow. I agree with the critics to an extent that Queen of the Desert does not do a great job in character development. And my take on that is while Herzog wants to make a film about longing, he tries to fit all of Gertrude’s loves — Henry, Richard and The Desert — into two hours. Thus, the movie feels, despite its slow pace, a little bit too rushed through Bell’s life; and it leaves almost no room for characters or relationships to develop. Still, I would argue both Nicole Kidman and, especially, Damian Lewis deliver more than their shares and bring us characters that are more complex than they may be in the script. Because both actors use, not just the lines they need to deliver, but also their body language to brilliantly capture the feelings, the intrigue, the desire, and their longing for each other. In particular, Damian Lewis’ Richard, with his witty and flirty air about him, brightens the screen every time he appears in the movie. And in case you want to learn more about Damian’s character Charles Doughty-Wylie, or the love story between him and Gertrude Bell, we have blog posts here and here, respectively.
I saw this movie as part of a test screening. One question you need to answer at the end of screening is whether you would buy a ticket and go see the movie on big screen. My answer was YES, I did it, and I recommend the movie to all Damian Lewis fans! His Richard is witty, flirty and has the energy other characters lack. Even the utterly harsh Collider review says “Lewis is the only actor that seems natural in his role.” Because HE IS. Damian brings fresh life to an otherwise dry and conventional movie. Besides, the fantastic, vast desert landscape is a very impressive co-star.
In closing: here is a fun little memory Damian shared on Twitter from his days in Morocco.
Filming in the desert with Werner Herzog. (The camel’s not called Werner) pic.twitter.com/FuFxMcZChx
— Damian Lewis (@lewis_damian) October 28, 2018
While the camel is not called Werner, we know from an interview clip shown on Danish TV that Damian has made the following impression of Werner Herzog’s description of this film:
This film is like a camel, and an elephant and a bison on top of a donkey, and I’m the donkey. But together we will make a wonderful movie.
So the camel is quite central to the movie, but, hey, it blinked, and Damian won! 😀 😀 😀
You blinked. pic.twitter.com/YagGBINwkn
— Damian Lewis (@lewis_damian) October 28, 2018
I know those of you that saw Damian’s hilarious and gracious speech at the Britannia awards back in October 2018 get the joke. Otherwise, see the speech here — get ready to laugh and shed a few tears, too!