Clever use of previously unseen archive footage and original letters brings to life the extraordinary story of a forgotten British female, arguably more influential on the Middle East than Lawrence of Arabia, in fascinating biopic Letters from Baghdad.
Gertrude, Queen of the Desertby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
A 19th century Englishwoman, Gertrude Bell, was an unlikely traveller in the Middle East who became a kingmaker and drew up the borders on the map that left the troubled legacy of modern Iraq.
Directors Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum have created an intricate web of archive footage of the time and edited it into the narrative of Bell’s life. It’s narrated through the words of Bell’s letters (voiced by Tilda Swinton) to her many correspondents – civil servants, military men, the Foreign Office, recreated and voiced by actors such as Nicholas Woodeson, Pip Torrens, Paul McGann and Robert Ian Mackenzie. There are also members of her family, such as the step-mother who brought her up, played by Joanna David, and friend Vita Sackville-West (Rachel Stirling).
It’s an impressive achievement, following Bell from her time at Oxford University in 1886, where she studied history, to her lonely death in Baghdad in 1926, depressed and feeling no longer needed. In between she has a chance meeting with TE Lawrence, who described her as “not very like a woman”. It’s not until she transplants to Arabia that she feels “I have become a person”. To her, after Britain it feels like the Garden of Eden. And it’s the local expertise she gained in the Middle East that led to her becoming an adviser to the British government, drawing up the borders of the new country of Iraq, installing Saudi Arabian Faisal as the new king, as being the best and cheapest solution to the British, even though the French had deposed him as King of Syria – and then, job done, being shifted sideways from affairs of state to archaeology, being tasked with setting up Iraq’s archaeology museum, which was famously looted after the fall of Saddam Hussein. In fact, through Bell’s story we can see the foreshadowing of the troubles that the country has inherited in the present day.
Letters from Baghdad is a fascinating historical document and an extraordinary story of the woman who made Iraq. It conjures up the characters of the time in their own words and the archive footage of the peaceful Baghdad and Mosul of Bell’s time is almost heartbreaking. Bell was a ground-breaker, becoming part of the male establishment in a way no British woman had done before – the picture above shows her as the only woman of sufficient status to be in the line-up of men on camels in front of the Sphinx. In fact, she is seated between Winston Churchill and TE Lawrence. Since her story has been lost in history, it would have been even more interesting to have had more explanation of how she became such an accepted expert and what official attitudes of the time towards such an exceptional, though apparently not very endearing in real life, woman were. However, it’s not before time that she should be recognised in this biography.
Letters from Baghdad premiered at the BFI London Film Festival 2016 and is released on 21 April 2017 in the UK.