‘Letters From Baghdad’ Review: Tilda Swinton Gorgeously Narrates Fascinating, Flawed Documentary

Pioneering diplomat Gertrude Bell makes a compelling figure, but this portrait could use more context for her achievements

Last Updated: June 2, 2017 @ 11:49 AM

Gertrude Bell is likely the most accomplished foreign diplomat you’ve never heard of. “Letters From Baghdad” is not a documentary about the current state of the Middle East but rather a look at its past, particularly the role Bell played in helping to shape it.

Bell was born in England in 1868, and as a young woman she cultivated hobbies traditionally enjoyed by the boys, such as mountain climbing, photography and archaeology. Eventually, she had the urge to wander, with her travels taking her from Germany to Egypt. She traveled and lived like the locals, learning native languages and customs as well as involving herself in their governments.

More than anything, however, Bell wrote, and Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum’s script is composed entirely of her 1,600-some letters along with other communications both personal and official. Tilda Swinton reads these often florid missives, many addressed to her father or an ill-fated lover. (Rose Leslie voices a younger Bell.)

Accompanying Bell’s words are re-creations, of course, and actors playing important people in her life. But the directors also had access to 100-year-old footage, both film and photographs, some hand-tinted and all remarkable. Though it’s somewhat distracting to watch alternately weathered footage and stark video, it’s less irritating than when Krayenbühl and Oelbaum try to age current footage themselves.

Bell’s achievements before her death (from either an accidental or self-inflicted overdose) at age 58 were many, including becoming in 1915 the first female officer to serve her country’s military intelligence. But more noteworthy — and more relevant to these times — is her work in birthing the state of Iraq. Having become fluent in Arabic as well as familiar with the people and customs of the Middle East, the “female Lawrence of Arabia” was tasked by the British government with assessing the situation in what was then known as Mesopotamia.

Though Britain wanted to rule the new country (whose borders Bell drew), its officials pushed for a self-governing Iraq and rallied for the instatement of its first king, Faisal bin Hussein. Many of the troubles of the region that Bell noted are remarkably similar to its unrest today.

“Letters From Baghdad,” which is divided into chapters titled with phrases from Bell’s writings, touches on her personal life, too, most notably her reputation for being “abrupt, intolerant, and snooty.” “No, no,” says a colleague. “One could not say that she was popular.” Bell apparently made exceptions, however, for those she deemed erudite. She also indulged in ironic sexism, saying that above all she wished for a wife to take care of her things. “I quite understand why men out here marry anyone who turns up,” she wrote.

But although Bell herself is fascinating, “Letters From Baghdad” is less so. Because we hear only the words of Bell and some peers, there’s no context in the film to inform you of, say, how she became involved in British government in the first place or why she traveled so widely (and who funded her travels).

To the viewer, Bell seems like a commoner who somehow wrangled immense influence over Middle Eastern affairs. And unless you know your early 20th-century history, it’s best to have Wikipedia on hand to follow along with Bell’s causes. One of the few details that is made clear is the depression that struck her after her work in Iraq.

Rarely has such a confusing film been so beautifully narrated, however. Another colleague comments near the end of the film that she was “born too gifted, perhaps. By the way,” he continues, “do read her letters. They are splendid.”