Archive for June 6, 2018

Don’t Frighten the Vultures!

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2018 by dcairns

David Wingrove returns with another of his Forbidden Divas, dealing with a film that somehow completely passed me by on its release. He was worried that this piece might be too mean. But I think we have to be able discuss plastic surgery and performance in films… but let us know what you think.

FORBIDDEN DIVAS 

Don’t Frighten the Vultures!

 “A silly bitch! A chattering windbag! A conceited, gushing, heavy-chested

man-woman! A globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering ass!”

–          A male co-star describes Nicole Kidman in Queen of the Desert

I make no apologies for adoring Nicole Kidman. In a world of drab nonentities, she is a star who looks and behaves like a star. Her ten-year marriage to Tom Cruise was one of the outstanding acting triumphs of the 90s. Since divorcing Tom, she has had to act on the screen, not off it. But she did so brilliantly in The Others (2001) and Dogville (2003) and Fur (2006). She has kept on going in The Paper Boy (2012) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). There was an Oscar for one of her less effective roles – as Virginia Woolf in The Hours (2002) where she suggests a supermodel impersonating a batty Bohemian bag lady. But she made up for it with the gloriously camp royal extravaganza Grace of Monaco (2014). Mind you, she is far more beautiful than the real-life Grace Kelly, not to mention a vastly superior actress.Her career has been one of odd and wayward choices – but seldom, if ever, a dull or a lazy one. So news that Nicole was teaming up with globe-trotting megalomaniac auteur Werner Herzog was something of a cinephile wet dream. She has the blonde hair and the vaguely manic blue eyes to become a female Klaus Kinski, who – under Herzog’s guidance – went mad in exotic locations in Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982). The role chosen was Gertrude Bell, a sort of female Lawrence of Arabia who explored and mapped the Middle East in the early 20th century and drew up the borders of present-day Syria and Iraq. Given that both countries are in a state of ongoing meltdown – beset by ethnic, religious and political wars – Bell now looks like a meddlesome amateur of the very worst kind. But however politically ill-timed it might be, Queen of the Desert (2015) had the potential to be a full-blown exercise in movie madness.It begins promisingly enough at an opulent stately home in England’s green and pleasant land. The young Gertrude is just down from Oxford and railing against her life as an upper-class debutante. There is nothing new in a movie asking us to sympathise with the woes – real or imagined – of absurdly entitled and over-privileged folk. Our disquiet is focused squarely on Nicole or, rather, on the ever-changing work-in-progress that is Nicole’s face. She is meant to be in her early twenties but looks at least forty. Her features have the glazed and plumped-up look of the 45-year-old Lana Turner, cast as a virginal bride in the opening scenes of Madame X (1966). We must take it on faith that the still-lovely Jenny Agutter is playing her mother. She looks more like a wise and well-bred elder sister who has opted for the natural look.Soon enough, her long-suffering parents grow fed up with her whining and pack her off to Tehran – where a distant cousin is head of the British Legation. Surely now is her chance to open herself wide to the mysteries of the Orient. Instead, she opens herself wide to a dashing junior diplomat played by James Franco. The kindest thing one can say is that his English accent is only slightly less convincing than Robert Redford’s in Out of Africa (1985). (Redford, famously, did not attempt an accent at all.) He climbs with Gertrude to the top of one of the mythic Towers of Silence, where the Zoroastrians leave their dead to be eaten by vultures. The lone vulture in residence takes unkindly to their presence. Jutting out its neck, it emits a loud squawk at the camera. This is by far the most expressive piece of acting we have witnessed so far. The intruding lovers retreat and consummate their passion elsewhere.Inexplicably, Gertrude’s parents baulk at this chance to get rid of her. It seems her suitor is socially déclassé and given to gambling. She goes home to England to nag them into changing their minds. Some months pass and Franco stages an abrupt exit by drowning himself in a river. Despairing of ever finding another man whose acting is worse than hers, Gertrude resolves to spend her life roaming the Middle East in his memory. She becomes – so the closing credits tell us – the leading expert of her day on Bedouin tribes and their culture. On screen, she displays all the cultural acclimitisation of Dorothy in her travels through the Land of Oz. Entire decades slip by with Nicole looking bored on top of a camel or wandering through an Arabian souk, in wafting white draperies on loan from Marlene Dietrich in The Garden of Allah (1936). The desert sands blow very prettily indeed. But whoever suspected that a trek lasting several months, through places quite devoid of human habitation, could possibly be this dull?!The dramatic high point of Queen of the Desert is not hard to pinpoint. It happened when our cat Toby found a cork that had rolled off the table during dinner. He rolled it deftly around the room, with the flair of a feline Lionel Messi. I’m honestly not sure what country Gertrude was meant to be in at that point. The film was shot on location in Morocco and Jordan – where Nicole, as any reader of Hello! will tell you, is a close personal friend of Queen Rania. There is a tentative – and even more tedious – affair with a second British diplomat (Damian Lewis) and an encounter with T E Lawrence, played as a cameo role by Robert Pattison of Twilight. In all fairness, his performance is no better than anyone else’s. But it is, at least, enthusiastically and energetically bad. He is a refreshing contrast to Nicole, who seeks to absolve herself of bad acting by not acting at all. Or is she just resting her facial muscles for their next encounter with the surgeon’s knife?I realise I have said nothing at all about Queen of the Desert’s place in the wilfully eccentric oeuvre of Werner Herzog. There is, frankly, no indication that Herzog or anyone else directed this movie. Still, I suppose somebody must have.

David Melville

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