April 13, 2019

Movie Review: "Queen of the Desert" (Benaroya Pictures - 2015)

(Note: This movie is available on Netflix.)

I often make presentations on the Middle East to various audiences, including cruise ships. Surprisingly, there is great interest in the history of the region, particularly how the current borders were drawn by the United Kingdom and France.

A friend recommended this film to me as it touches on that history. Of course, as soon as I saw the name Gertrude Bell, I had to watch it. She was one of the key British advisers as the Ottoman Empire was carved up after World War One, at a time when women were not readily accepted in this role.

Queen of the Desert is a 2015 film that purports to be a biography of Gertrude Bell. I found it to be condescending and petty - Gertrude Bell was a pioneer who made major contributions to not only the British Empire (she was made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), but to the nascent Kingdom of Iraq as an adviser to King Faysal. It was Gertrude Bell that proposed the borders between Iraq, Syria and Jordan, borders that remain virtually identical today. It was her understanding of the relations between the tribes in that region where the three countries and Saudi Arabia are closest that allowed the British to maintain political influence in the area.

Although there are glitches and gaffes in every movie, one stands out to me. The opening scene is labeled as taking place in 1914 at the British Arab Bureau in Cairo, in which senior British officials (including Winston Churchill) and military officers are discussing the eventual carving up of the Middle East after the war. The war had just begun at that time, and the agreement being discussed at this meeting - the Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and Great Britain - was not reached until the spring of 1916.

The film was harshly treated by critics. While I often like movies that critics do not, in this instance, I agree with their assessment. This could have been a hard-hitting biography of a woman who is a role model for other women today, but seemed to focus on her personal failures rather than her professional accomplishments. I was not surprised to discover that the $36 million project grossed only $2 million dollars at the box office.

That said, Nicole Kidman did the best she could with the script she had. I would compliment her on her accurate pronunciation of the Arabic phrases that she used in the film.

Pass on this one. Letters from Baghdad (Between the Rivers Productions - 2018) is a better choice.