“Letters from Baghdad”

Susan Granger’s review of “Letters from Baghdad” (Vitagraph Films)


My best bet this week is this award-winning spy thriller, the timely, true story of intrepid explorer Gertrude Bell (1858-1926), who influenced Middle Eastern history in the early 1900s.

More influential than her colleague T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), adventurous Bell helped map part of the Arabian Peninsula after WWI. She established the Iraq Museum, which housed artifacts and antiquities of Mesopotamia and was ransacked during the American invasion of Baghdad in 2003.

Assembled from period photographs, archival footage and fake ‘talking-head’ interviews by New York documentarians Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum, it chronicles the life of this extraordinary woman, the daughter of a British baronet who became the first woman to receive highest honors in Modern History at Oxford University.

Superbly narrated by Tilda Swinton from Bell’s own copious correspondence, it follows her solo journey, commanding a 17-camel caravan across the uncharted Arabian desert for 1,500 miles as the first female freelance archaeologist, befriending Bedouins, sheikhs and other tribesmen, learning the local dialects, history and customs.

“I have cut the thread,” Bell wrote. “You will find me a savage, for I have seen and heard strange things and they color the mind.”

Because of her extraordinary knowledge of the Hashemite dynasties and fluency in Arabic, Persian, French, German and English, she was the only woman given diplomatic status at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.

That led to Winston Churchill’s invitation to participate in the 1921 Cairo Conference, where Syria’s ruler Faisal was her choice to become King of the newly formed country of Iraq, attempting to encompass Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

“Oil is the trouble, of course,” Bell slyly noted. “Detestable stuff.”

If her exotic saga sounds familiar, perhaps you saw Werner Herzog’s unfortunate “Queen of the Desert” (2015) with Nicole Kidman as Bell.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Letters from Baghdad” is a vividly insightful 7. See it at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 10, in Westport Town Hall auditorium. Tickets are $10 to benefit the Westport Cinema Initiative in partnership with Westport READS.