Nicole Kidman, James Franco and Robert Pattinson star in a dreadfully dull would-be epic about the life of Gertrude Bell

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“Queen of the Desert” is a biopic as dry as the Sahara.

Iconoclastic filmmaker Werner Herzog takes on the life and loves of British explorer, writer and political officer Gertrude Bell, convincingly played by a game Nicole Kidman. But Herzog can’t seem to decide whether he’s making a straight-laced, straight-faced biopic or sending up the idea of such a production; the result is a confounding bore that’s liable to please no one.

Writer-director Herzog picks up with Bell at the turn of the 20th century, and it’s made painfully clear she’s an independent spirit who won’t be held down by traditional gender stereotypes. “You will smile. You will not intimidate the young men with your intelligence,” she is told, and her resulting eye roll is almost as big as the one coming from viewers.

Bell makes her way around Persia, Syria and Jordan, breaking down class roles in a series of stiffly staged encounters. She photographs groups of people and travels across gorgeous desert landscapes, questioning her existence in very Herzog-ian fashion. “The deeper I penetrate this mysterious labyrinth, the more I become to know myself,” she says, words you’d much rather here in Herzog’s voice than Kidman’s.

And then there are her men. James Franco shows up as a suitor who wins Bell over with his card trick magic, Damian Lewis plays a British officer whom she falls for and Robert Pattinson pops up playing Lawrence of Arabia.

Despite Kidman’s best efforts, almost nothing clicks on an emotional level, and the movie passes as slowly as sand through an hourglass. At one point, Bell laughably complains, “I’ve got a Roman Empire-sized headache.” You’ll know how she feels.

agraham@detroitnews.com

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@grahamorama

‘Queen of the Desert’

GRADE: D+

Rated PG-13: for brief nudity and some thematic elements

Running time: 112 minutes

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