The documentary “Letters From Baghdad” lifts the veil of anonymity on one of the 20th century’s forgotten figures — a woman who literally redrew the map of the Middle East — but falls short in explaining why her actions were so consequential.
Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) left her family’s estate in Yorkshire to study at Queen’s College and later Oxford, one of the few women in a world dominated by men. She traveled extensively in the Middle East, making connections with chieftains and tribal leaders in what is now Syria, Jordan and Iraq. She’s sometimes compared to another British adventurer, T.E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia,” who was one of her contemporaries and admirers. (Bell, played by Nicole Kidman, was the subject of Werner Herzog’s “Queen of the Desert,” which was released in some cities earlier this year and quickly disappeared.)
Because of her deep knowledge and connections, she became attached to the British government, sometimes officially and sometimes on an ad-hoc basis. She got involved primarily in helping the Brits set up the nation-state of Iraq, installing King Faisal and overseeing the preservation of the country’s antiquities in the National Museum of Iraq. (The treasures Bell helped preserve were looted in 2003 in the chaos of the U.S. invasion.)
Bell’s letters and diaries — read mainly by Tilda Swinton, though her earlier writings are read by Rose Leslie (“Game of Thrones”) — are brimming with candid observations of the Middle East, as well as self-reflection about her state as a lone woman working mostly with men. She never married, but had an unconsummated affair via letters with a British military officer who was killed in the battle of Gallipoli in 1915.
Filmmakers Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum tell Bell’s fascinating story through her many letters and the comments of those she knew, from Arab leaders to British diplomats. But while Bell’s words are heard only through Swinton’s and Leslie’s narration, the other voices are presented by actors sitting in front of the camera, like interview subjects in a Ken Burns documentary.
By focusing on primary sources, Krayenbühl and Oelbaum show Bell’s impact on events at the time, as the British maneuvered to install puppet regimes and maintain access to the region’s oil fields. But that approach doesn’t provide much historical context and doesn’t show how Bell’s actions then contributed to the problems in the Middle East today.
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’Letters From Baghdad’
A fascinating documentary about a woman at the center of Middle East turmoil a century ago, told largely through her candid letters.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, Aug. 11.
Rating • Not rated, but probably PG for discussions of war and depression.
Running time • 95 minutes.