Did you ever see “Reds” (1981)? Warren Beatty’s drama about the radical journalist John Reed has an unusual twist. It’s a standard Hollywood biopic, except that Beatty intercuts the narrative with talking-head interviews with real people who knew Reed.
“Letters From Baghdad” does the opposite. It tells the story of Gertrude Bell mostly through her own words — Tilda Swinton reads Bell’s letters — as viewers see period footage and photographs. The twist is that the directors, Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum, intercut talking-head interviews with real people who knew Bell — except that they’re played by actors. It’s “Reds” inside out.
Such an odd combination shouldn’t work. Shot in black and white, the interviews are made to look as though they’re roughly contemporaneous with Bell (1858-1926). The first few times they appear on screen the effect verges on the goofy. Soon enough, they blend in with the film’s easy rhythms, arresting images, and astonishing story.
Bell led one of the most remarkable lives of her time. The daughter of a baronet, she had a fierce intelligence and eagerness for adventure. The former earned her a first at Oxford, the latter led her to the Middle East. “I go on riding camels in my dreams,” she wrote. One of the more striking photographs in a film full of them shows her next to Winston Churchill in Egypt in 1921, both of them camel borne. She’s wearing a fox fur. He’s not.
Bell learned Arabic, traveling through Persia and the Ottoman Empire. “I have become a person in Syria,” she wrote. She also spoke Persian, French, German, Italian, and Turkish. A gifted writer, Bell published books about her journeys. She took up photography and archeology. The latter would stand Bell in good stead when, after World War I, she founded what is now the National Museum of Iraq. It also introduced her to another extraordinary British subject obsessed with the Middle East, T.E. Lawrence. He’s one of the talking heads “interviewed” in the film. Like all the other interviewees, he’s played by a little-known actor (Eric Loscheider) who acquits himself well.
The extensiveness of Bell’s travels aroused suspicions on the part of the Ottoman Turks. Was she a spy? During the war, she served as an adviser to the British Foreign Office and military. Official dispatches praised her for providing information of “national value.” After the war, Bell helped draw the boundaries of Iraq, played a role in the selection of its king, and served as his adviser. Oh, she was also something of a clothes horse (there were 25 pairs of shoes in her closet when she died) and, when younger, a dedicated mountaineer. Her destiny, though, lay far beyond the Alps.
The Brattle Theatre has been running a retrospective, Tilda Swinton: World’s Greatest Actress. It ends Saturday. The title does seem a bit . . . excessive? Maybe not: Swinton’s vocal performance as Bell is so vivid and absorbing it could be entered as evidence for the defense. Swinton makes Bell so compelling it’s easy to overlook what a paradoxical figure she was. Feminist exemplar? Absolutely. Imperialist manipulator? Yes and no: Her sympathy for the Arabs rivaled that of Lawrence. Prophet? She once wrote, “Oil is the trouble, of course, detestable stuff.” All that, and she bore an unnerving resemblance to Benedict Cumberbatch. Truly, she was one of a kind. So is “Letters From Baghdad.”
LETTERS FROM BAGHDAD
Directed by Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum. Starring Tilda Swinton’s voice. At Museum of Fine Arts, Sept. 21 and various dates through Sept. 29 (www.mfa.org). 95 minutes. Unrated. In English and Arabic, with subtitles.Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.