The Ottoman Lieutenant
Directed by Joseph Ruben. Starring Hera Hilmar, Michiel Huisman, Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley. (2017, R, 110 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 10, 2017
In The Ottoman Lieutenant, a corny romance provides cover for a whitewashed history of the Armenian Genocide. Without a shred of passion evoked by the film’s love triangle and the debasement of historical fact in the story’s war-torn storyline, The Ottoman Lieutenant arrives in theatres already in a body bag. Unzipping it unleashes at least 100 years of historical and cinematic conformities.
Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar plays Lillie Rowe, a young nurse in 1914 Philadelphia, who bucks her superiors by treating a black trauma patient in a whites-only hospital. Soon, she defies her parents’ wishes by choosing to go to Turkey’s Eastern Anatolia to deliver a truck and medical supplies after hearing Dr. Jude Gresham (Hartnett) make an impassioned fundraising pitch for his Christian mission and clinic. In an early voiceover that recurs at key points in the film, Lillie tells us that she had a desire to change the world before discovering that it was the world that would ultimately change her. We learn little else of Lillie’s background which might inform us of how she became such a spunky, independent thinker. On her own, she quickly sets sail for Turkey on her charitable and, perhaps, romantic mission.
Upon arriving in Istanbul, Lillie meets Ismail Veli (Huisman, of Game of Thrones), an English-speaking lieutenant in the Ottoman Imperial Empire Army. He gives her a tour of an important mosque and advises her to head back to America because war is imminent. She presses on, however, and Ismail is given the task of providing her with escort to the mission. Along the way, they encounter “bandits” (aka, in other quarters, rebellious Armenian Christians) and lose the truck, all while making eyes at each other. This taboo love between a Muslim man and a Christian woman develops further once Lillie arrives at the clinic, where Jude looks longingly at the newcomer, as well. The chief surgeon (Kingsley), who has barely clarified problems of his own, barks that the Anatolian clinic is no place for a woman.
Filmed in Turkey and the Czech Republic, The Ottoman Lieutenant plays like another silly Western romance that emphasizes the area’s natural beauty and historic landmarks (Mt. Ararat, among other sites) and marginalizes the native actors, who all perform in supporting roles. Variety states that the film is Turkish-funded, and the many Turkish-sounding surnames among the producers seem to back that up. Since the Turkish government remains in denial about the Armenian Genocide which happened concurrently with World War I, it also seems likely that The Ottoman Lieutenant consciously attempts to veil that history as well. Perhaps if the romantic drama were more convincing instead of merely looking like handsome photo ops of pretty people filmed against blazing skies, the film might carry more weight. Director Joseph Ruben (The Stepfather, Sleeping With the Enemy) relies too much on lingering glances and the generically sweeping soundtrack by Geoff Zanelli, thus the movie never has a genuine impact. Ultimately, this is a movie that’s more about the Ottoman Lieutenant’s Woman than The Ottoman Lieutenant himself – another example of the film’s epic misdirection.