Werner Herzog's Queen Of the Desert

This one's been a long time coming - Werner Herzog's already completed his next two films. I've already watched the trailer and gotten excited to see Lo and Behold, and according to the imdb, Salt & Fire is finished. And meanwhile, where did Queen Of the Desert go? I'd been googling around for news of it for ages, and there'd be no updates. And this was a big, high budget (for Herzog) film starring major movie stars, not some micro-documentary you'd expect to get lost in obscurity because it couldn't fit through normal distribution channels. It's sorta like Branagh's recent Magic Flute: a surprisingly big movie to just never even open in the USA. But I guess if it happened once to that film, it can happen again to this one. So it's still unreleased, except finally on home video in Germany... But that's enough for me! Blu-ray imported, hole filled. Done.

Update 9/1/18: Well, it did wind up making it's way to the US, and I'm consequently adding the Shout Factory DVD.  But as it turns out, I'm still glad I imported.  Find out why (and why you should still import, too).
Queen Of the Desert stars Nicole Kidman in the titular role of Gertrude Bell, the real life contemporary of Lawrence of Arabia, a British explorer who traveled the deserts of Arabia, and became instrumental in establishing the native leadership of Jordan and Iraq. James Franco and Homeland's Damian Lewis star as the two loves of her life, and Twilight's Robert Pattinson actually plays the slightly absurd role of Lawrence.

Oh, and by the way. There have apparently been two versions of this film floating around: an initial 128 minute version, and then a shorter 110 minute cut which played at some later festivals. Well, the version released here is the longer version. The few criticisms I've read of this film have called it light on detail, and I certainly didn't feel like this version needed any slimming down; so I'm fairly confident this is the preferable version.
At first, it doesn't feel much like a Herzog film. It's an epic biopic, but of course full of plenty of 'scope landscape porn that you just know Werner loved trouping out to the desert to get. But it's like an Oscar season movie, focused on a mix of romanticism and very delicate, human storytelling. It's like Mansfield Park meets Dances With Wolves - so far removed from something like Wild Blue Yonder, with Brad Dourif ranting to the camera about being a space alien in between clips of archive NASA footage. But if you didn't see his name in the credits, you'd probably never guess he directed the film.

Once you know, however, you start to find the Herzog in it. Like, how many other directors would add the little moments to let the audience get to know the camels they characters ride? There's a moment where Franco is taking Kidman to a local tower where the locals leave their dead for the vultures and he says, "they've surely heard us coming" so they probably won't be any there when they get up there. And I'm thinking, this is a Herzog film, of course the vultures will be up there! And the character of Bell - an individualist who wanders from culture to culture, appreciating their culture and art while rejecting bureaucracy and conventional norms - is perhaps the most direct 1:1 avatar for the romanticized image Herzog crafts for himself. Of course he was drawn to this woman's story!
But what reached me more than the history or the sweeping vistas was the tragedy of the story. On the one hand, certainly the adventures she undertook and the life she made for herself was not only her choosing, but what she wanted and rewarding in a way the people around her could never understand. But on the other hand, everything she accomplished wound up being more of the un-pursued benefits of the tragedies she was dealt. I don't think she was ever interested in "making kings" or becoming a sort of legend. But that's what she got, instead of... well, I won't spoil it.
2016 German Prokini blu on top; 2017 US Shout Factory DVD bottom.
As you can see from the screenshots, the film is very rich and detailed in HD. As a new release and shot on Red cameras, it ought to. In fact, actually. The framing is a very wide 2.40:1, obviously chosen to show off the fabulous location photography. Shout's DVD is virtually identical to Prokino's blu, apart from being softer and more compressed for SD. It's not the most flattering compression job, honestly, but seeing how everything else is the same, it's safe to assume Shout's blu looks the same as the Prokino.  Said Prokino is in German and region B, but it's 100% English friendly. Most of the characters speak English, which is given a robust DTS-HD 5.1 audio track; and when they occasionally speak Turkish or Arabic, they're subtitled into English. There are also German language options, of course. There's a German dub audio track, which is also a DTS-HD 5.1 mix, and optional/ removable German subtitles.  The Shout disc is the same except it also has a 2.0 option, no German dub, and Spanish instead of German subtitles.

Here's why I'm still glad I imported, even though there's now a domestic release.  Shout's disc?  Barebones apart from the theatrical trailer.  But on the Prokino?  We get a 20+ minute on camera interview with Werner Herzog. When I was ordering this, I was worried it would be in German only, but thankfully the entire interview is spoken in English with removable German subtitles. So that's great. Also included are both the English and German trailers, and a collection of bonus trailers which thankfully don't play on start-up. Oh, and like many German releases, it has reversible cover art, so you can hide the giant rating square in the lower left-hand corner.  To their credit, Shout's release also has a reversible cover with completely different artwork.
So yeah, this is pretty great and I'm really surprised it's coming in so low under the radar.  I don't know, maybe if we wait another year or two, we'll finally see this trickle out into a limited theatrical run and an eventual US blu-ray release. Apparently, a big deal was made for a wide release in 2015, but I think that company might be having real problems.  Well, hey, it happened after all!  But...  Plus, even if it does come here, is it going to be any better than what Prokino's just given us?  Nope!  It sure wasn't.  They actually gave us less.  It's nice that Shout put this film out at all in the US, but if you're a big enough fan to add this film to your collection, you'll definitely want to take the extra little step to get the Prokino.

1 comment:

  1. Knowing the track records of Nicole Kidman's recent films(such as TRESPASS[with Nicolas Cage] and STRANGERLAND) being released in America,Werner Herzog's latest film is likely bound to go Straight-To-U.S.VOD/DVD/Blu-Ray land.