Before ancient Mesopotamia was transformed into 20th-century Iraq, the extraordinary British diplomat, mountaineer, archaeologist and spy Gertrude Bell was working to carve up the Middle East into principalities that Europe could comfortably control. She and her compatriot, T.E. Lawrence, helped arm the Arab rebellion against the Ottoman Turks, cheering the cause of an independent Arab state. Lawrence, of course, became the subject of the Oscar-winning “Lawrence of Arabia.” Now there’s “Letters From Baghdad” in which filmdom finally pays heed to the fascinating, adventurous, intriguing character of Bell, the very antithesis of demure womanhood in Victorian England.
Born to a wealthy family, she graduated with a degree in modern history from Oxford University and an intense curiosity about the fabled Middle East. She made her first trip there in the 1890s, exploring the region like no European woman before her. She learned the local dialects, history and customs, investigated the archaeological sites and traveled deep into the desert.
After World War I exploded, Bell was recruited as the first female intelligence officer in the British military. To call her larger than life is an understatement. She was as large as history. We live with the side effects of her actions to this day.
The film is a black-and-white pseudo newsreel set directly after her death in 1926. It is based on Bell’s copious correspondence, contemporaries’ views and historical record. Directors Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum have actors in period costumes stage talking-head interviews as, among others, Bell’s friend, novelist Vita Sackville-West; Arnold Wilson, England’s acting commissioner of Baghdad, and Lawrence, who calls her “a wonderful person — not very like a woman, you know?”
In a less contrived manner, Tilda Swinton (an executive producer) supplies mellow off-screen narration in Bell’s words. Noting the European fixation on the sandy region, she said, “Oil is the trouble, of course. Detestable stuff.” The film shows us a desert storm of fire, smoke and spewing oil.
Fiercely independent-minded and culturally sensitive, Bell viewed external meddling in the area’s schisms as troubling. Nonetheless, she became a powerful force in Iraqi politics, something of a kingmaker when her preferred choice, Syria’s King Faisal, was imported as king of the new state of Iraq in 1921.
While much of Bell’s vision of the region became nothing more than a mirage, she remains a figure widely admired in Iraq as a nation-building creator of the country. This lively production, scored to the rhythms of throbbing table drums, serving up her sharp, sly criticism of the misogynistic attitudes of her male counterparts, reaches too far, presenting her as a sort of proto-Wonder Woman. But not very much too far.
“Letters From Baghdad”
Starring Tilda Swinton and Michael Higgs. Directed by Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbuhl.
Unrated. Check listings for theaters.
Bottom line: A look at the adventurous, intriguing character of Gertrude Bell
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