She was one of the few women T.E. Lawrence could almost stand—and that’s saying something. Together with Lawrence, Gertrude Bell was instrumental in defining the boundaries of modern day Iraq and installing the Hashemite Dynasty on the throne. Oh well, nobody’s perfect. Bell tells her story in her own words, derived from her personal letters and diplomatic memorandum in Sabine Krayenbühl & Zeva Oelbaum’s Letters from Baghdad (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Right from the start, Bell’s Oxford matriculation was rather defiant of British societal norms in the mid-1880’s. Thanks to the support of her indulgent widower father, she managed to convert her passion for travel, particularly through the Mideast region, into a full diplomatic position. At first, she was something of an intelligence freelancers, dashing off reports on tribal alliances, but eventually she was given an official brief of her own. She and Lawrence would indeed be colleagues, but not necessarily friends. Arguably, she had better luck forging connections with locals, partly due to the sexism and elitism of the foreign office and partly because she was not the sort to suffer fools gladly.
There is no question Bell led a fascinating life—and for better or worse, her legacy will be an awkward fact of life for decades to come. However, Krayenbühl and Oelbaum are somewhat hemmed in by their approach. Too often, her letters home tell her father she met this newly posted official at a diplomatic soiree and he seemed like a decent chap, but, presumably for security reasons, she rarely discusses her official activities in-country. It is only during the establishment of Iraq that we really hear her addressing her ministerial duties.
Krayenbühl and Oelbaum mostly play it pretty straight during the Iraq sequences, but they clearly hope Bell’s complaints regarding British colonial administration of the future Israel will reverberate with viewers. However, what is most distressing is the omission of Bell’s role as a witness of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian Genocide. Once again, one of the most censored and denied episodes in Twentieth Century history is again edited into oblivion.
In a stylistic twist, Krayenbühl and Oelbaum have actors playing Bell’s contemporaries as if they were talking head interview subjects, some of which work better than others. However, their judgement is spot-on in terms of the archival footage they married up with words of Bell’s correspondence. Tilda Swinton (who famously portrayed Orlando, whom Virginia Woolf based on Bell’s friend Vita Sackville-West, another talking head in Letters) has fine diction when narrating the older Bell’s letters, but her voice is not especially rich or distinctive.
Letters is fine on the broad strokes of Bell’s life, but it is short on the telling details. It is a competent introduction that is relatively successful humanizing its subject, but it feels better suited to PBS than theatrical distribution. Recommended (with limited reservations) as a future VOD pick, Letters from Baghdad opens this Friday (6/2) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.