“Letters From Baghdad: The True Story of Gertrude Bell and Iraq,” directed by Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum, is an experiment in documentary form — an unfortunate choice that perhaps looked good on paper. Bell was born into a wealthy British family in 1868, and was an avid traveler from an early age. This movie focuses on her time in the Middle East during the early 20th century and her role in drawing the modern borders of Iraq, which the United States and other countries have expended a good deal of blood and treasure to maintain and defend.
The directors asked the redoubtable Tilda Swinton to read Bell’s letters, and, in configuring the film as if it were made after Bell’s death in 1926, they cast actors in the roles of Bell’s contemporaries, such as T. E. Lawrence, Vita Sackville-West and Arnold Wilson. The actors appear as documentary-style talking heads. (On second thought, I don’t see how this idea could have looked good on paper.)
The strategy does, however, enable the filmmakers to keep Bell in a bubble, inoculated from the disapproval her work received in subsequent years. While she is still highly regarded by many Iraqis, the scholar Edward Said was critical of her in his landmark study “Orientalism.” With this movie’s framing, the directors don’t even have to bring him up. There’s much historical material here that’s of high interest, and Ms. Swinton’s performance of Bell’s letters convey Bell’s skills as a writer, but the movie is ultimately too conceptually labored for its own good — or that of its subject.