NICOLE Kidman learned to ride a camel and brave a sandstorm for her role as real-life British adventurer Gertrude Bell in the Berlin film festival contender “Queen of the Desert”, premiering Friday.
The film, directed by German veteran Werner Herzog and co-starring Robert Pattinson, James Franco and Damian Lewis, is one of 19 competition contenders at the Berlinale and drew a mixed reception at a press preview.
Kidman said she had previously been unaware of Bell, who helped redraw the map of the Middle East as the Ottoman Empire was crumbling based on intelligence she gathered during extensive travels with Bedouin tribes.
“She was such an important part of that history,” Kidman, 47, told reporters.
“We talk about Lawrence of Arabia and we’ve never heard of Gertrude Bell. That’s one of the great things â€“ being allowed to bring her name to the forefront.”
The 72-year-old Herzog, known for documentaries such as “Grizzly Man” and “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and early classics such as “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Fitzcaraldo”, admitted it was his first film with a woman at its heart.
“I think I should have done films that have a female protagonist much earlier in my life,” he said.
“I’m glad that finally this discovery came to me. I’m glad that it happened and I shall continue.”
The film tracks Bell from her graduation from Oxford to her first forays into the Muslim world, when she takes a job at the British embassy in Tehran.
She discovers a passion for new lands and peoples, learning to translate Farsi poetry with the help of a dashing young diplomat played by Franco.
Bell later moves to the Middle East, where she crosses paths with T.E. Lawrence (Pattinson), eventually becoming a “kingmaker” among tribal leaders for the British as they created new countries from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire with the stroke of a pen.
Franco accent mocked
Franco, whose British accent on screen drew fierce mocking on Twitter, said he enjoyed observing an old hand like Herzog discover new territory: love scenes.
“It was fun for me to watch Werner figure out these scenes that he didn’t have tonnes of experience doing â€“ it was almost like watching a master tackle something new,” the 36-year-old actor said.
Franco, who toggles between commercial and more experimental fare, said doing a period piece was also a stretch for him.
“I’ve done plenty of just full-on sex scenes and these were certainly done in a different way â€“ the sensuality was told in this alternate, kind of artful way. It was great â€“ it was exciting.”
Lewis, 43, best known for his role in the US television series “Homeland”, played a married British Consul General in Damascus who fell in love with Bell.
“I had a long kissing scene with Nicole that got cut,” he said.
“It was not the right way to convey their love, their longing, the sensuality â€“ it was too modern just to have two people, you know, chewing each other’s faces off. Things were done with restraint.”
Kidman said she relished working in the desert, which Herzog said had not been “filmed like this before â€“ we filmed in a real sandstorm”.
“For me, not seeing anything but just horizon and being told I had to get on a camel that afternoon after getting off the plane â€“ and learn to ride a camel â€“ is right up my alley and from that point on I was doing things I’d never done before an probably will never do again,” she said.
Herzog said he did not intend his heroic portrayal of Bell to be “paternalistic” toward Middle Eastern countries now roiled by strife within borders she helped to determine.
But he added: “The alternative is materialising and it is no borders and Islamic State running this as a caliphate.”
The Berlinale runs until Feb 15. â€“ AFP