Angelina Jolie's world of adventure

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This week, she made headlines in Pakistan. But that was just the latest stop in a year of breakneck travelling.

In an age of shuttle diplomacy and year-round international summitry, it is striking that one of the most well-travelled public figures of all is not a politician but a movie star. Angelina Jolie may already be a queen of hearts and a commander of men, but she is not, technically, a head of state; or not yet, anyway. Given the current trajectory of her global profile, perhaps that is not far off.

The past year has been an annus mirabilis for Jolie. It has brought her success both at the box office and in court; seen her become a feminist hero after taking a movie role initially intended for Tom Cruise and making it her own; and seen her turn up in remote corners of the world to bathe waifs, orphans and the dispossessed in the glow of her luminous Hollywood teeth.

This humanitarian work has become so extensive that her public persona is beginning to transcend showbusiness. In her capacity as UN Goodwill Ambassador, she has been globetrotting this year with a fervour that would make Henry Kissinger blanch. Her schedule has taken her to meet Somalian refugees in Kenya last September, to Syria in October (where it was rumoured she and partner Brad Pitt might adopt another child), to Haiti in the wake of the earthquake (to which she and Pitt donated $1m), to Bosnia to cuddle old ladies in April, and most recently, to Pakistan.

Images of Jolie picking her way delicately though a refugee camp in Nowshera this week – and speaking out against Koran-burning – showed her in a traditional black headscarf and minimal make-up looking more Modigliani than Mother Teresa. Her flashing smile, lustrous hair and that physiognomy, in the midst of devastation and human suffering; one can only imagine what the exhausted and ravaged refugees themselves thought. Probably that aliens had landed. Yet Jolie's commitment seems unquestionable. "From what I understand, this situation is on a scale that we have not really seen the likes of," Jolie told the attendant swarm of reporters. "For three decades, Pakistan has hosted Afghan refugees graciously; there are still 1.6 million of them whose needs must be addressed. There are people displaced by the floods, many of whom lost their children. And there are people displaced by conflict. So there are many different parts to the needs in Pakistan."

Jolie's aid work may have more than one motive, but she knows her facts and counts Bill Clinton and Kofi Annan among her friends at the UN. Her presence is enough to highlight events like this on a global stage but she is passionate about them, too. Her steadfast commitment to her charitable work reflects the accusations of principled stubbornness and bullish absolutism that are often hurled at her, and to which her well-documented past is testament: the vials of blood she and ex-husband Billy Bob Thornton wore around their necks; the self-harming she battled with during her early career; her and Pitt's declaration that they will wed only when it is possible for anyone in the world who wants to get married to do so.

In fact, the only thing that spoils this humanitarian persona is a trait Jolie shares with Gordon Brown – and it must be the only one, surely – of smiling inappropriately while delivering bad news.

She has had a fair amount of that herself, too, in the past year, with the release of Andrew Morton's unofficial biography last month and repeated gossip-mag speculation about the state of her relationship with Pitt. After claims in January that she and Pitt were in "divorce talks", the couple took the News of the World to court and won an apology. But column inches continue to be devoted to analysis of their body language, eye contact, hand-holding and the fact the Brad had grown a beard and was reportedly listening to a lot of Nick Drake.

It is hard to imagine how anyone could travel on such a scale without putting pressure on their family life, but somehow Angelina seems to fit it all in. At the last count, her ever-expanding family included six children, three of whom are adopted. In July, she was snapped leaving Japan's Narita airport with her four eldest, on their way home after attending a premiere of Salt in Tokyo. (Presumably, Brad was at home with their young twins.) One hates to think what all this travel must have cost. But just imagine how many air miles Angelina and her family have racked over the past 12 months.

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