Letters from Baghdad
Gertrude Bell was instrumental in establishing the country of Iraq and a champion of Arabia at large. Her role in shaping the modern Middle East was significantly greater than T.E. Lawrence, with whom she worked and was friendly, yet there’s no David Lean movie about her efforts.
The short explanation is, “She’s a woman,” though directors Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum dig deeper in their documentary Letters from Baghdad, following Bell from the cradle to the grave while establishing how she found herself in situations atypical for her sex in the early 20th century.
The filmmakers utilize Bell’s wealth of surviving written correspondence and cast modern actors to portray her friends, family and associates, sitting them down for interviews as if in an Errol Morris film.
Though creative, the flourish loses its spark after a few examples, becoming part of an overall flat approach that relies on the expected bevy of archival photographs and footage.
Not even the late – perhaps overly so – addition of Tilda Swinton as the voice of adult Gertrude can energize the proceedings, whose engaging and informative content ultimately drowns in the quicksand of snoozy filmmaking.
Grade: B-minus. Not rated but on par with a PG rating. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse
(Photo: Vitagraph Films)