The Ottoman Lieutenant
Period romance is predictable but pretty
The Ottoman Lieutenant (2017)
Directed by Joseph Ruben
Cast: Michiel Huisman, Hera Hilmar, Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley
You can either fight against the melodramatic romance novel leanings of the B-list historical epic The Ottoman Lieutenant, or you can surrender to them. Do the former, and you’ll find yourself tripped up by the film’s moldy storyline, anachronistic characters and mildly revisionist propaganda. Opt for the latter action, and you’ll encounter some lovely scenery and some mildly engaging tension between an independent-minded American woman and a swarthy man in uniform. Close your eyes and you can pretty much imagine the book cover.
The Ottoman Lieutenant is written by Jeff Stockwell (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, Bridge to Terabithia) and directed by Joseph Ruben, whose schizophrenic career has veered from ’70s softcore sexcapades (The Sister-in-Law, The Pom Pom Girls) to video store cult classics (Dreamscape, The Stepfather) to several semi-forgettable mainstream Hollywood thrillers (Sleeping with the Enemy, Money Train, The Forgotten). That lack of consistency is deeply felt in his latest effort, which seems like a cross between one of those expensive historical epics Miramax loves to fund and one of those cheap Christian melodramas that pop up occasionally masquerading as mainstream films.
In The Ottoman Lieutenant, Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar (“Da Vinci’s Demons”) stars as a Lillie Rowe, a headstrong young woman from Philadelphia, circa 1914. Despite the objections of her snooty, uppercrust parents, she volunteers as a nurse at a local hospital. As the film starts she’s loudly criticized for helping a black man who’s rushed into the emergency room with a bleeding chest wound. (“He’s in the wrong hospital,” shouts one of the hospital’s racist docs.) With this obvious and rather ham-handed introduction, we know that our gal Lillie is a progressive-minded proto-feminist who cares not a whit about the social conventions of her day. Why? The film doesn’t really provide us with reasons, saddling Lillie with a modern persona simply because it jibes with the film’s narrative.
One evening Lillie attends a lecture by Christian do-gooder Jude Gresham (Josh Hartnett), a “Doctors Without Borders” type who humblebrags about his crusading hospital in Eastern Anatolia. In Jude, Lillie finds a like-minded progressive—smashing racial, social and religious boundaries. Lillie enthusiastically volunteers for the cause, offering to personally shuttle a shipment of medical supplies and an ambulance vehicle to Turkey.
Upon her arrival in the Middle East, Lillie immediately crosses paths with the most helpful and hunky dude in Istanbul. Ismail Veli (Michiel Huisman from “Game of Thrones”) is a lieutenant in the Ottoman Imperial Army, but he’s got enough time on his hands to give Lillie a personal tour of the picturesque Sultan Ahmed Mosque. This is convenient given that, in the very next scene, Lillie is informed she can’t transport her supplies across the country without a military escort. Naturally, she calls upon Lt. Veli, and the two embark on a miniature recreation of The African Queen—complete with adventure, bandits and romance-
Lillie is eventually deposited at the missionary hospital, where she’s welcomed with open arms by the clearly smitten Jude. The same can’t be said for the hospital’s cynical (and secretly tormented) administrator (Ben Kingsley, doing a Kingsley-like job, but hardly exerting himself). He repeats the film’s oft-stated mantra, “This is no place for a woman!”—which, of course, only inspires more pluck in our already plucky heroine. Lillie decides she’s not going home to Philadelphia, but sticking around as a volunteer nurse instead.
Unfortunately, World War I soon flares up in Europe, splitting Turkish society right down the middle and inspiring local Christian and Muslim factions to start murdering one another. To its credit The Ottoman Lieutenant starts by pointing out common ground between both religions and continues by finding fault with both groups in their ethnoreligous zeal to knock one another off. It seems like an evenhanded treatment of a situation that (obviously) still has real-world repercussions. On the other hand, the “war is bad and everybody’s at fault” attitude downplays a lot of thorny historical incidents. (Like, for example the Armenian Genocide of 1915.) Turns out the film was funded primarily by Turkey, which may account for some of its glossing over of those historical atrocities.
Then again, despite the presence of a few battle scenes to get the old blood pumping, The Ottoman Lieutenant is really more of a lover than a fighter. Aside from some sporadic attempts to invoke the ghost of Rudyard Kipling as backdrop, this is strictly romance territory. For the most part, Lillie finds herself caught in a romantic triangle between the dashing but exasperating Lt. Veli and the steadfast but boring Dr. Gresham. (Although, given the film is called The Ottoman Lieutenant and not The American Doctor, it’s kind of a one-sided contest.)
The script itself is a straightforward, twist-free affair filled with narrative conveniences and some occasionally corny dialogue. (“I thought I was going to change the world,” Lillie tells us by way of introductory voice-over. “But it was the world that changed me.”) Ismail and Lillie’s Muslim/Christian, Romeo/Juliet paring unfolds with a minimum of cultural problems (other than occasionally pointing out where women are not allowed to be in the Middle East). Everything up to the film’s tragic-but-resolute ending feels prefabricated and pulled from the shelf.
Visually and technically, however, The Ottoman Lieutenant puts its best foot forward. All involved were clearly aiming for the historical exoticism of Ismail Merchant (A Room with a View, The Remains of the Day, The Golden Bowl, The White Countess)—but on a budget. Shot primarily in the Czech Republic, the film manages to conjure lovely period detail and fetching cinematography. It’s no Doctor Zhivago, but in its own thrifty way, The Ottoman Lieutenant delivers polished, well-paced (if entirely predictable) costumed romance.