Casting James Franco and Robert Pattinson in a movie set in pre-World War One Arabia is a pretty gutsy move. Unfortunately for director Werner Hertzog, it doesn’t pay off. Pattinson as T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) works largely because his appearances are scattered through this film; a look at the real-life exploits of Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman) as she explored the desert and met with many of its tribes.
But with Franco, who plays Bell’s first love when she arrives in Baghdad, we get a concentrated dose, and he’s so off-kilter as a stoic romantic here that he throws the whole film out of whack. It never really recovers. Though the later sequences, which largely focus on Bell’s various expeditions with some occasional flirting with British military attaché Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damien Lewis) thrown in, eventually rise to the level of “perfectly serviceable”. There’s the occasional stab at explaining Bell’s urge to wander as her seeking freedoms not afforded women at the time, but otherwise this is largely just an excuse for a lot of desert wanderings that – despite various people telling us of their import to the British Empire and the world (the nations she helped create linger today) – never feel essential or insightful.
Reviewed by Anthony Morris