The Discovery Channel and Image Entertainment have released Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen, a fast-moving, entertaining documentary on the efforts of Egyptologists to identify the long-lost mummy of Queen Hatshepsut, the fifth pharaoh of Egypt's 18th dynasty. Big news this past summer when famed (and controversial) Egyptologist Dr. Zahi Hawass made the startling announcement that he had identified the Queen's remains, Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen purports to follow his team's painstaking labors (although I suspect there might have been some acceptable re-creations), while throwing in some historical background on Hatshepsut by Egyptologist babe Dr. Kara Cooney.
Although I took several classes in ancient art history in college, quite honestly, the only thing I remembered about Hatshepsut, according to Saturday morning TV, was that she was responsible for the amulet that could transform brainy, gorgeous science teacher Andrea Thomas into all-powerful Isis (please click here to read my review of The Secrets of Isis). The background info on her life and reign in Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen is a tad more dense, but this isn't a Master's class in Egyptology. That's not the point of Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen; it wants to move, and tell a modern-day mystery, complete with CSI-type forensic sleuthing that makes for a fun, viewer-friendly documentary.
Split along two separate tracks, Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen cross-cuts between the efforts of Dr. Hawass to identify the mummy of Queen Hatshepsut, while Dr. Cooney investigates various tombs and burial sites to get historical background on the pharaoh. Certainly, the Hawass stuff is more compelling, because it's directly related to the mystery of how the actual mummy, left tagged (but not as Hatshepsut) and forgotten in a dusty store room of the Cairo Museum, was eventually tracked down. The documentary plays pretty fast and loose with the details of this hunt, though. There's an exciting central sequence where Hawass is combing the Cairo Museum, looking for any mummies that might fit Hatshepsut's profile. But several times, the narrator intones that a "tip" has lead the team to a certain display case or storage room, but we're never told what that tip is, or how it came to the team. Suspense and excitement are the main goals of Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen, not a rigorous examination of the sequences of events that led to the miraculous discovery (frankly, somebody over at The Discovery Channel, if they haven't already, should think about doing a show on the hidden nooks and crannies of the Cairo Museum, because it looks like a fabulous place to poke around in).
More successful are the sequences where the mummies are CAT-scanned, and where DNA analysis is performed to discern which of the four possible mummy suspects (they're labeled the "serene one," the "strong one," the "nanny one," and horrifyingly, the "screaming one") are really Queen Hatshepsut. Logically paced and snappily edited, these sequences don't have time to stop for what must have been a long, laborious process. Indeed, watching Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen, you might think the research and identifying all happened in one hurried, rushed afternoon. Certainly, events have been condensed, with perhaps a few acceptable recreations of historians careening around the Cairo Museum, opening up display cases, to create this seemingly lightning-fast discovery process.
The separate Cooney sequences are interesting in and of themselves, but they can't help but feel tacked on in Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen, because in reality, Dr. Cooney had nothing to do with this search for Hatshepsut (she was brought in afte the fact, for the documentary). She acts more like a viewer's guide to discovering the historical Hatshepsut, while Hawass digs around for the Queen's actual body. Dr. Cooney, a heavyweight scholar, has a bright, accessible style that contrasts nicely with Hawass' ever-so-slightly (and entirely delightful) air of a used-car salesman (anybody who saw Hawass' infamous Fox special, Opening the Lost Tombs: Live from Egypt will remember what a marvelous hambone he is; he's a natural for TV). Cooney's theories on why Hatshepsut's images were removed from obelisks, pyramids, and tomb walls are fascinating, but it's obvious she's been brought in to pad out Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen. I would have liked a more in-depth look at Hatshepsut herself, but here, emphasis is on speed and entertainment; serious academics and scholarly heft have been left behind in the classroom.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.