Producer: Stephen Joel Brown, Alinur Velidedeoglu, Gunes Celikcan, Marve Zorlu, Yusuf Esenkal and Serdar Ogretici
Director: Joseph Ruben
Writer: Jeff Stockwell
Stars: Michiel Huisman, Hera Hilmar, Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley, Haluk Bilginer, Afif Ben Badra, Paul Barrett, Jessica Turner, Peter Hosking, Selcuk Yontem, Eliska Slansky, Hasan Say and Deniz Kilic Flak
Studio: Paladin Films
There are two ways of looking at “The Ottoman Lieutenant.” One is as a lush romantic epic in the tradition of David Lean. In that respect it falls short. But Joseph Ruben’s film, set in Anatolia during World War I, is also an interpretation of the events of that place and period, and from that perspective it’s also historically problematic.
On the most basic level, the picture tells the story of Lillie Rowe (Hera Hilmar), a young, independent-minded nurse in 1914 Philadelphia. Horrified when her hospital refuses to treat a seriously injured man because he’s black, she tells her staid parents (Jessica Turner and Paul Barrett) that she has decided to follow the call of Dr. Jude Gresham (Josh Harnett), who is visiting America seeking donations for the hospital at which he works in a remote area of the Ottoman Empire. But Lillie does not merely intend to make a monetary contribution; she plans to go to the mission herself, taking along supplies as well as her late brother’s truck.
Arriving in Istanbul, Lillie almost immediately bumps into Ismail Veli (Michiel Huisman), a handsome lieutenant in the Ottoman army. He shows her about the city—visiting, among other places, a gorgeous mosque—but advises her to leave quickly, as war threatens. But of course she’s intent on staying, and he is assigned to accompany her to the hospital, which they reach despite being attacked along the way by bandits who steal most of their goods.
At the hospital Lillie is warmly welcomed by Gresham, but treated coldly by the place’s founder, Dr. Garrett Woodruff (Ben Kingsley), though that tortured man’s attitude toward her will change as her dedication becomes apparent. A romantic triangle soon emerges, of course, involving Ismail, Jude and Lillie; after the lieutenant and the nurse go off riding the plains one day, in fact, the two men come to blows. It’s made more complicated, of course, by the fact that Veli is a Muslim and Lillie a Christian, but surprisingly little time is devoted to the cultural problems such a coupling would have raised in early twentieth-century Anatolia.
That isn’t the only problem with this portion of the film. Though Huisman strikes a dashing figure, Hartnett makes a rather stiff one. Even more of an obstacle is Hilmar’s Lillie. The character, first of all, comes across as anachronistic—a modern girl in period dress, espousing twenty-first century attitudes and behavior in a far earlier context. Apart from that, however, Hilmar’s performance is oddly empty—not simply because her accent is strange (certainly not typically American), but because there seems only exterior affect, but no interior life, to her turn. She goes through the emotional moments, but never really connects. Perhaps the fault lies with Ruben, a journeymam director who has had solid success with thrillers like “The Stepfather,” “Sleeping With the Enemy” and “The Good Son,” but seems rather out of his element here. He even fails to secure much nuance from Kingsley, who plays his role at pretty much an unrelieved roar, no less when he drunkenly admits how loss has crushed him than when he’s playing the dedicated surgeon.
Of course, all the personal issues come to seem rather petty—as Rick observes at the end of “Casablanca”—when horrible events intervene. From the start of the film, indifferently scripted by Jeff Stockwell, there has been violence in the area, with the Ottomans contending with rebellious Armenian Christians, among them those who stole the supplies Lillie was bringing to the hospital (which they then sold to Woodruff and Gresham). But now the Empire joins the war on side of Germany and Austria-Hungary, which invites Russian intervention—and Christian collusion with them. That lays the foundation for the brutal imperial policy toward the Armenians which resulted in over a million deaths and is often referred to—though the Turkish government rejects the name—as an act of genocide.
Much is made of the Muslim-Christian, or Turkish-Armenian, conflict in the background of “The Ottoman Lieutenant.” All three of the men in Lillie’s new life are embroiled in it, and though none are simplistically portrayed as involved on one side or the other, it is Ismail who is compelled to confront the issue most directly, when toward the close he must decide whether to try to save a group of Armenian civilians being led off to certain execution, and of course he exhibits his heroic nature by taking a principled, if dangerous stand. Neither of the doctors gets a similar opportunity to exhibit such moral courage, though each certainly shows sympathy for Muslims as well as Christians.
The issue is rather one of equivalency. Both sides in the conflict—imperial troops and Christian rebels—are effectively depicted as equally culpable in the violence—indeed, if anything, the Armenians are depicted in a less flattering light. In a film financed in large measure by Turkish sources, that message cannot help but strike one as a deliberate ploy to undercut the reality of the Armenian genocide—which, of course, most historians accept as fact but the present Turkish regime adamantly refuses to acknowledge. The implication that both sides were in effect equally responsible has the odor of propaganda about it.
So “The Ottoman Lieutenant” is a deeply flawed film, as both romantic epic and historical commentary. Still, it does at least offer a glimpse into a fascinating point in twentieth century history (though the employment of archival footage and flat narration to periodically explain the circumstances is a clumsy device), and from a purely visual perspective it’s a fairly impressive piece of work, with both Luca Tranchino’s production design and Daniel Aranyo’s widescreen cinematography thoroughly professional and the locations often magnificent to behold. (Geoff Zanelli’s score, on the other hand, is obvious.) That, however, is not sufficient to compensate for its deficiencies.