REVIEW: Queen of the Desert

5 04 2017

“You will not scare men with your intelligence,” warns an elder to the young Gertrude Bell at the outset of Werner Herzog’s “Queen of the Desert.” It’s the kind of “nevertheless, she persisted” moment that would spur on a great feminist tale. Instead, the line represents the tease for a story that never materializes.

This story of an accomplished archaeologist who provided valuable research on tribes in the Ottoman Empire as their empire collapses is all too eager to define her life in relation to the men whose path she crosses. There’s T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) of “Lawrence of Arabia” fame, a more professional acquaintance, but she sets off on her quest primarily in grief-stricken anguish at the loss of Henry Cadogan (James Franco). While in the Middle East, she spends as much time on screen rebuffing offers from Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) as she interacts with the native tribes.

This becomes an issue later on when Herzog tries to land the film with an anti-imperialist message as Winston Churchill arrives from the British Empire to help break up the Ottoman Empire. Gradually, Bell does grow into a bit of an anti-imperialist as she increases her understanding of the region’s tribes. But in her embittered farewell, knowing that her advice will likely be discarded, Bell expresses a kind of fondness for the people she loves that also reeks of a white savior complex.

The only thing to recommend in the film is Pattinson’s turn as Lawrence; he does the self-effacing British elite routine with aplomb. Otherwise, “Queen of the Desert” sits on a hollow throne. C





REVIEW: Our Kind of Traitor

27 06 2016

Pop culture seems to be reaching a point of saturation with espionage tales, no doubt due in large part to Daniel Craig making James Bond cool again and Tom Cruise finding some new life in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise. It has also led to a revival of appreciation for British spy novelist John le Carré, whose career began in the Cold War and has stretched into the post-9/11 world.

Our Kind of Traitor,” the latest adaptation of the author’s work, comes at the tail end of a big spate from le Carré. 2011 brought the feature-length version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy;” 2014 saw the release of “A Most Wanted Man;” earlier in 2016, his novel “The Night Manager” got the prestige mini-series treatment. Given what else has recently been dredged from his oeuvre, it’s hard not to see this new film as second-shelf le Carré.

For a writer whose strength lies in the grounded nature of his stories, the turn of events in “Our Kind of Traitor” is remarkably improbable. Large, bizarre narrative leaps work fine in a larger-than-life series like James Bond. This level of suspension of disbelief and stretches of plausibility feel odd and out of place in this realistic world.

The film’s protagonist, Ewan McGregor’s Perry Makepeace, just happens to be in the wrong place at the right time when he meets Stellan Skarsgard’s Dima, a Russian money launderer looking to go straight, in Marrakesh. Dima wants to get out of the criminal underworld and takes a gamble on the first Englishman he can find. And of course, the dominos just so happen to fall in a way that involves MI6 and produces a number of intriguing plot points. Susanna White’s film is an intelligence movie with fairly little intelligent craftsmanship, neither reflecting on the state of modern back-room diplomacy nor providing a particularly fun cinematic outing. C+2stars