It is one of the injustices of the universe that the fame of TE Lawrence, AKA Lawrence of Arabia, lives on (probably mostly thanks to David Lean and Peter O’Toole), while far fewer people are familiar with the biography of his contemporary and comrade-in-diplomacy, Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), a character no less colourful, charismatic and compelling than Lawrence. Getting a niche arthouse release, this finely wrought documentary won’t rectify that imbalance in their respective reputations. But it does serve as a handy summary for those who want a cinematic introduction to Bell’s sprawling, singular story, and don’t want to start with Queen of the Desert, Werner Herzog’s dramatised flop that starred Nicole Kidman as Bell.
Archaeologist, linguist, and the greatest woman mountaineer of her age, in 1921 she drew the boundaries of the country that became Iraq. James Buchan on the extraordinary life of Gertrude Bell.
Here, an unseen Tilda Swinton reads extracts from the many elegantly written letters Bell sent while she was finding her feet in the Middle East, learning Farsi and Arabic, and then later exploring the desert, where she developed a particular bond with its people. Eventually, along with Lawrence, she would help to shape the modern states we have today – especially Iraq – before moving into the field of archaeology.
Various actors are seen reciting recollections of friendships and encounters with her, as she cut a stylish swathe across the region, always dressed immaculately. Directors Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbuhl have opted to make the film a touch more uncommercial by filming even this original footage in smudgy black and white that matches the wealth of archive footage used to illustrate the story.
Sure, it is a little like how you imagine it would be if Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour made films instead of audio-only features, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.