Letters from Baghdad (PG) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl, USA-UK-France, 2016, 95 mins, in English and Arabic

Cast: (voice –Tilda Swinton), Ammar Haj Ahmad, Adam Astill, Tom Chadbon, Simon Chandler, Joanna David, Anthony Edridge,

Review by Colin Dibben

Great archive footage casts a spell in this interesting biography of Gertrude Bell, the ‘female Lawrence of Arabia’, who was the most powerful woman in the British Empire in her day.

The film tells the dramatic story of this British spy, explorer and political powerhouse using contemporaneous footage of the region we now call the Middle East – much of it never seen before. Bell traveled widely in Arabia before being recruited by British military intelligence during WWI to help draw the borders of Iraq. As a result she helped shape the modern Middle East.

The film chronicles her extraordinary journey into both the uncharted Arabian desert and the inner sanctum of British colonial power. The story is told entirely in the words of Gertrude Bell and her contemporaries, excerpted from their intimate letters, private diaries and official documents. Actors speak the words written by Bell’s friends and associates – they’re all very good – while we only hear Tilda Swinton voicing Gertrude Bell.

The archive footage is really well edited together and often spectacular, making this an accomplished account of one woman’s life and times.

Letters from Baghdad comes to UK cinemas from 21 April 2017.