Tilda Swinton is the perfect choice to read the letters of force of nature Gertrude Bell – archeologist, explorer, mountaineer and spy. Bell became the first woman to get a first in history from Oxford, then taught herself Persian and rode off into the desert in what her sister described as an ‘orgy of independence’. The tribespeople called her Khatun – ‘the lady’. Bell muses in one letter: ‘Do you know what I really need is a wife.’
Elsewhere we see the casual misogyny of the early twentieth-century. That other great English explorer of the era, TE Lawrence, once said of her: ‘A wonderful person. Not like a woman, you know.’ The film also touches on Bell’s work for the British government, drawing up the boundaries of Iraq after WWI – which was to have consequences still felt today.