The Bell of the Middle East – Letters from Baghdad (Film Review)

Rating:

Letters from Baghdad chronicles the life of British spy, traveller and writer Gertrude Bell (often referred to as the “female” Lawrence of Arabia), and voiced and executive produced by the incomparable Tilda Swinton. Throughout the film, Bell’s intrepid escapades are told via her own letters, which reveal her to be an extraordinary wordsmith. Bell travelled widely in Arabia before being recruited by supporting British military intelligence throughout WWI, therefore helping to shape the Middle East of today. As such, I would recommend this film to anyone looking to understand today’s muddled and decisive political climate, as Bell happened to be at the very centre of the disastrous British colonial experiment. With that being said, this film is far from a niche product catering to the interests of the historically and politically minded. It is, rather, a thoroughly enjoyable visual and literary experience, to be savoured by anyone with dreams of exotic adventure.

Structurally, Letters from Baghdad feels at first like an essay film in the vein of such works as From the Land to the Sea Beyond or Julian Temple’s London: The Modern Babylon. Wonderfully restored archival footage provides a dazzling and romantic glimpse of 19th and early 20th century Middle East. The team behind restoring these images cannot be championed enough. Much of what is shown here has never been seen by the general public, and each reel is an absolute joy to behold in its new crystal clear vision. However, one must also give fair dues to Bell herself, who through this film has cemented herself as a talented photographer; a title to add to her already impressive lists of talents. What separates this film from those aforementioned titles is the fact that what we have here is of a much more ‘natural’ film structure (being essentially a biography of Gertrude Bell’s life). And what a life it was. While the film starts off slow, Gertrude is introduced as a precocious and ambitious woman, a proto-feminist of sorts. It does evolve in an excited manner, much the same way Bell’s life did; taking in political intrigue, tragedy and infidelity.

Bell refers to herself in the altogether Tolkien-esque language of daring adventurer, stating before heading into Iraq: “The me they knew will not come back”. Bell is in fact referred to as “Queen of words”, a title after watching that is hard to argue with. I would, however, like to put forward the mantle of “Queen of voice” for Tilda Swinton, whose voiceover gives yet another layer of life to the letters. Indeed, where it not for the sumptuous newsreel footage of bustling Damascus, you could be forgiven for closing your eyes and treating the pairing of Bell and Swinton as an audiobook or radio play. Such was Bell’s knack for capturing the romantic imagery of the Middle East, and for forming neat aphorism about love, death and politics, that T.E Lawrence himself stated (and this quote is transcribed at the end of the film) that for those of us not privy to the work of Ms Bell, you should start by reading her documents, diaries and letters; since they really are rather splendid.

4/5

Dir: Sabine Krayenbühl, Zeva Oelbaum
Scr: Sabine Krayenbühl, Zeva Oelbaum
Featuring: Tilda Swinton Ammar Haj Ahmad, Adam Astill, Tom Chadbon
Prd: Mia Bays, Denise Benmosche
DOP: Gary Clarke, Petr Hlinomaz
Music: Paul Cantelon
Country: UK, USA
Year: 2017
Run time: 95 mins

Letters From Baghdad is out 21st April