The explorer Gertrude Bell played a huge role in shaping the Middle East today – but Werner Herzog’s new film of her life prefers schmaltzy romance to history or politics, writes Matthew Anderson.

‘The female Lawrence of Arabia’, they call her; ‘the woman who made Iraq’. Events in the Middle East since 2000 have brought about a revival of interest in Gertrude Bell, the archaeologist, explorer, linguist, traveller, Orientalist, writer and spy. Bell wielded enormous influence when the map of the region was redrawn after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One. As Britain’s Oriental Secretary, she set Iraq’s borders, wrote its constitution and lobbied heavily for her man, the Emir Faisal, to be installed as the new country’s first king. She was an extraordinary character and her achievements are doubly impressive given the standing of women at the time. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that the synthetic country she helped create out of incompatible Kurdish, Sunni and Shia populations was an unstable one that collapsed into Baathist dictatorship and today is riven with deadly sectarian tensions. We remember Bell now because we ask: whose idea was all this in the first place?

But watching Werner Herzog’s new film Queen of the Desert, which has just had its international premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, this might never occur to you at all. Herzog’s film is wholly uninterested in the effects of Bell’s achievements, in the repercussions of history or the politics of empires. The film with which it will undoubtedly be compared is David Lean’s 1962 masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, which features some of the same characters and dramatises similar historical moments – comparisons which Queen of the Desert invites from the get-go with its sweeping desert cinematography. But even if Lean’s film was dewy-eyed and sentimental about the British Empire, at least it had something to say. Herzog’s film has no comment at all. The whole colonial adventure is merely a colourful backdrop for a standard period melodrama about the two tragic loves of Bell’s life. This is a shame and a missed opportunity: Queen of the Desert takes the life of a woman who defied the conventions of her time, and casts it in the most conventional possible terms. It’s a disappointingly ordinary film from a director whose work is usually so wonderfully strange.

Nicole Kidman as Bell does what she can with the role she’s got. She delivers breathy dialogue by candlelight, squints defiantly at arrogant officials, looks wistfully out of the window and secures wisps of hair coyly behind her ears. James Franco plays the first of her lovers, Henry Cadogan, a junior diplomat at the British embassy in Tehran who woos her with a cheesy card trick and his knowledge of medieval Farsi, then asks for her hand in marriage. Forbidden from marrying him by her father – there are rumours Cadogan is a gambler – and heartbroken by the contents of a letter she receives in England while trying to change his mind, Bell embarks on her adventures in the desert.

There is some sense of Bell’s growing confidence, her affinity with the landscape and its people, their language and way of thinking. But when she meets Major Charles Doughty-Wylie (Homeland’s Damian Lewis) we’re straight back to old-fashioned romance. The other man in her life is TE Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – though he is more gay best friend than love interest. As Lawrence, Twilight’s Robert Pattinson is unconvincing and faintly ridiculous. His first appearance on screen – a keffiyeh on his head so we can’t miss him – caused a ripple of snorts and giggles to pass through the audience in Berlin.

The film passes from episode to episode in a manner so conventional that for much of the film I was sure that Herzog – a film-maker usually so alive to the strangeness of life, to its absurdities and follies – was trying to wrong-foot us; that at any moment some grotesque, wild-eyed character would enter, or some bonkers Herzogian lizard would rise up out of the sands and signal a change of direction. But surprises came there none. There are a few tiny gestures toward the uncanny in the way that animals are filmed, particularly the camels, with their gurning lips and swivelling heads: they intrude humourously on otherwise serious scenes. But apart from this everything proceeds in bog-standard, romantic movie-epic fashion.

Right at the end we meet two new characters – Faisal and his brother Abdullah, sheikhs from the mighty Hashemite family who were installed by the British as the rulers of Iraq and what is now Jordan. They fawn over Bell as “Al Khatun” (the noble lady) and “the maker of kings” and she anoints them, god-like, to their roles.  As far as this film is concerned, what will unfold in these new countries is of no interest or importance. The titles roll over swirling sands.

★★☆☆☆

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.