Werner Herzog's 2015 film "Queen of the Desert" presents a simplistic, meandering view of Gertrude Bell, who shaped the course of Mideast history after World War I with her map and pens.
Nicole Kidman plays the independent, adventurous Bell, who explored the region's deserts and visited the Druze, Bedouins and other local tribes before and during the war, which brought an end to the Ottoman Empire and increased European control of Arabian territory.
An ally of TE Lawrence - played as an impetuous imp in the movie by Robert Pattison - Kidman at Winston Churchill's command drew the boundary lines for Iraq and Jordan, and shaped the origins of Saudi Arabia. Traveling from Baghdad to Cairo, she drew upon her tribal connections to determine who held power, with long-term consequences.
The film takes a benign view of Bell, whose Iraq state was unstable from the beginning with its volatile mix of Shia, Sunni and Kuridish rivals. Herzog ignores her dark side, picturing her as loved and fondly remembered in the region. The film also points to her brilliance as a writer and scholar of Mideastern cultures.
In another off-kilter performance, James Franco plays her mystical, poetic lover Henry Cadogan, a young British soldier and diplomat whom she meets soon after arriving in Teheran, escaping Edwardian English society. Reciting Omar Kayyam, blending a British gentleman's reserve and romantic daring, Franco recycles well-worn cliches.
Damian Lewis brings more depth to the role of Charles Doughty-Wylie, a married British officer who falls for Bell. In despair over his wife's refusal to give him a divorce, he is killed at Gallipolli, the Churchill-conceived military disaster that led to the rise of the Turkish state.
Although the movie presents a superficial portrait of Bell, visual images are striking. Kidman riding a camel through the expansive desert is a recurring motif. Wrapped in robes and a turban-style headdress, Kidman appears regal and vulnerable.
Skating over her imperial manipulations, the film indicates Bell's historical significance, which remains in force as President Trump visits the volatile region.