Review: Gertrude Bell doc ‘Letters from Baghdad’ misses

Documentary explores famed British explorer but can’t find any life in its subject

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

By all accounts, famed British writer and explorer Gertrude Bell led a fascinating, transcendent life, bringing about great change in the Middle East at the turn of the 20th century. So why can’t Hollywood make a decent movie about her?

Earlier this year, Werner Herzog’s dry-as-sand “Queen of the Desert” (with Nicole Kidman in the lead) came and went without a peep, and now there’s “Letters from Baghdad,” a loving, but laborious study of Bell’s life that feels like it was made to put high school history classes to sleep.

Directors Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum pore over Bell’s letters, delivered with poetic cadence by Tilda Swinton, and stuff the film with a veritable mountain of archival footage to illustrate Bell’s words. The directors also make the damning mistake of having actors portray real-life historical figures in staged interview segments, a choice that comes across laughably awkward at best and, at worst, uncomfortably reminiscent of a Christopher Guest mockumentary.

Retention is all but impossible in Krayenbühl and Oelbaum’s stuffy presentation, which piles on information and leaves precious little room for context or comprehension. Words are stacked so thick and piled so high they become meaningless, even Bell’s, a shame since she had quite the knack for language.

Krayenbühl and Oelbaum clearly know their subject well, but “Letters from Baghdad” plays with all the pizazz of a 90-minute book report and never finds Bell’s essence. Only the most loyal of Bell buffs need apply, everyone else would be better off sticking to her Wikipedia entry.


(313) 222-2284


‘Letters from



Not rated: nothing objectionable

Running time: 95 minutes