Letters from Baghdad

Letters-from-Baghdad-rev Letters from Baghdad  (2017)    Vitagraph Films/Documentary    RT: 95 minutes    No MPAA rating (violent images)    Director: Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum    Music: Paul Cantelon    Cinematography: Gary Clarke and Petr Hlinomaz    Release date: June 23, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Tilda Swinton (voice), Rose Leslie (voice), Eric Loscheider, Helen Ryan, Rachael Stirling, Christopher Villiers, Lucy Robinson, Elizabeth Rider, Michael Higgs, Joanna David, Adam Astill.

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 As I watched the documentary Letters from Baghdad, I thought to myself how well the life of writer-political officer Gertrude Bell would lend itself to a big Hollywood historical epic a la Lawrence of Arabia (actually an associate of Bell’s). Hire a big name star like Cate Blanchett to play Bell. Find the right director; I’m thinking Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) or Stephen Frears (Philomena). Give it a lengthy running time (three hours and change) and an intermission. Sure, it would be a tough sell. So was Reds yet Paramount gave Warren Beatty the green light to make a costly epic film about leftist journalist John Reed and his role in the Russian Revolution of 1917.

 Letters-from-BaghdadIt came as shock when I learned that there’s already a movie about Bell, 2015’s Queen of the Desert starring Nicole Kidman and directed by Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo). It was barely released to theaters, received mainly negative reviews and lost a lot of money for the producers. I didn’t see it yet but it’s in my queue. I’d really like to watch it now that I’ve seen Letters from Baghdad.

 I never heard of Gertrude Bell before now but what a life she led. Among her many accomplishments, she was instrumental in establishing Iraq as a self-governing state. Letters from Baghdad covers Bell’s entire life starting with her childhood in England. From a young age, she had a thirst for adventure. She was a fiercely independent sort who had no interest in doing the things expected of women- i.e. marriage, kids- in the late 19th century. Instead, she spent most of her life traveling extensively throughout the Middle East, a place she instantly fell in love with on her first trip circa the turn of the century. She held a governmental position where she helped make policy. She also created the Iraq museum. She was the most powerful woman in the British Empire.

 Much of Bell’s story is conveyed by her own words from letters written to her father (to whom she remained close throughout her entire life) and associates. Her eloquently written words are spoken by the always eloquent Tilda Swinton. We also hear from people who knew her personally like T.E. Lawrence and fellow writer Vita Sackville-West. How is that possible, you ask? Actors play the real-life figures. The words they speak are sourced from their letters and journals. It’s an interesting idea doing it this way. At the same time, there’s a sense of removal. It doesn’t quite jibe with the archival footage used throughout the movie.

 For the most part, Letters from Baghdad is fascinating stuff even if the movie’s structure is a bit too formal. Told in chronological order and divided into chapters, directors Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum hit upon all the important points. We learn of her many accomplishments. We also get something of a feel for what Bell was like as a person. While some sing her praises, others paint her as an often difficult woman who wasn’t easy to get along with. She rubbed many people the wrong way but Letters from Baghdad downplays this in order to show her in a more positive light. I get it, there’s a tendency for documentaries to do this. Still, the movie held my attention throughout. It might make a nice companion piece to Queen of the Desert which I plan to watch very soon. 

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