'Letters From Baghdad': Film Review

Courtesy of BFI National Archive
'Letters from Baghdad'
Doesn't do justice to its fascinating subject.
6/9/2017

Tilda Swinton voices the famed British explorer known as "the female Lawrence of Arabia" in this documentary by Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum.

You have to feel sorry for Gertrude Bell, at least cinematically. The famed British adventurer-writer who figured so prominently in her country's interactions in the Middle East first suffered the indignity of Werner Herzog's flop feature Queen of the Desert in which she was portrayed by Nicole Kidman. Now she's the subject of Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum's documentary, whose muddled storytelling and ineffective cinematic techniques squander rich archival material. Subtitled The Untold Story of Gertrude Bell and Iraq (inaccurately, since the film delves into many other aspects of Bell's storied life), Letters From Baghdad represents a sadly missed opportunity.

That's not to say that the film isn't often fascinating — how could it not be, considering it's about a woman who, compliments of her era's sexism, became known as the "female Lawrence of Arabia?" Bell, who had a wealthy upbringing and earned a degree in history from Oxford, embraced travel and adventure from an early age. She loved mountain climbing in the Alps, but it wasn't until she journeyed to the Middle East that she discovered her true passion.

She traveled widely through the region, exploring its deserts along with T.E. Lawrence, learning the local languages and developing an intimate knowledge of its people — a knowledge in fact so intimate that she was recruited by British military intelligence and played a major role in determining Iraq's borders after World War I. An accomplished archaeologist, she also created the institution that would become the National Museum of Iraq (which was tragically looted in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion).

As its title indicates, the film makes extensive use of excerpts from Bell's correspondence as read by actress Tilda Swinton, who's also one of the executive producers. Large amounts of archival footage are incorporated, as well as copious photographs, many of them shot by Bell herself (photography being yet another of her talents). Among the most evocative is a shot taken in front of the pyramids of Giza, featuring a smiling Bell sitting between Lawrence and a sunglasses-wearing Winston Churchill on camels.

Despite such rich source material, however, Letters From Baghdad proves oddly unsatisfying. While Swinton vividly brings Bell's colorful personality to life with her superb vocal performance, there's no commentary by historians or other experts to provide the necessary historical context. Instead, actors playing such contemporaries of Bell's as Lawrence and Vita Sackville-West deliver brief comments, presented in black and white to blend in with the archival footage, with predictably stilted results.

While we learn much about Bell, including details about her troubled personal life, we never get a complete sense of her historical importance. As such, the film will best be appreciated by those already deeply familiar with her story.

Production: Between the Rivers Productions, Missing in Action Films
Directors: Zeva Oelbaum, Sabine Krayenbuhl
Producer: Zeva Oelbaum
Executive producers: Denise Benmosche, Elizabeth Rodriguez Chandler, Ashley Garrett, Alan Jones, Ruedi Gerber, Thelma Schoonmaker, Tilda Swinton
Directors of photography: Gary Clarke, Petr Hlinomaz
Editor: Sabine Krayenbuhl
Music: Paul Cantelon

95 min.

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