The Ottoman Lieutenant (2017) Paladin/Drama RT: 106 minutes Rated R (some war violence, discreet love scene) Director: Joseph Ruben Screenplay: Jeff Stockwell Music: Geoff Zanelli Cinematography: Daniel Aranyo Release date: March 10, 2017 (US) Cast: Michael Huisman, Hera Hilmar, Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley, Haluk Bilginer, Afif Ben Badra, Paul Barrett, Jessica Turner.
In the opening minutes of The Ottoman Lieutenant, the heroine says via voiceover narration, “I thought I was going to change the world. But of course it was the world that changed me.” Right then, I knew I was in for an entertainingly bad movie containing every cliché associated with period romances set against a major historical event. In this case, it’s WWI and the Turkish-Armenian conflict. As the war rages on in the outside world, plucky American girl Lillie (played by Icelandic actress Hilmar) falls for Ismail (Huisman, The Age of Adaline), an officer in the Turkish army. Of course, it’s a forbidden kind of love what with her being an American and him being a Muslim- i.e. the enemy. But don’t look to The Ottoman Lieutenant expecting a history lesson, it’s pure melodrama.
The story opens in 1914 with Lillie trying to treat a black patient in a white hospital because it’s the right thing to do. Her colleagues sneer at her for daring to be progressive in an era when women were assigned a specific role in society. Her parents are on her back about being 23 and not yet married with children. They refer to her nursing career as “a whim” they indulged. One day, she attends a lecture by Jude (Hartnett, Black Hawk Down), an idealistic American doctor who co-heads a medical mission in Anatolia. Inspired by his words, Lillie makes arrangements to travel there to personally donate her late brother’s truck and other medical supplies. Naturally, her parents try to forbid it to which she replies, “This is something I have to do.”
Upon arrival, Lillie takes a walk through a busy marketplace where she first encounters Ismail who takes her to see a mosque which he describes as being the most beautiful in Istanbul. She’s granted permission to deliver the supplies but is told that she’ll need a military escort because she’s a woman. Of course it’s Ismail that gets assigned this task and he’s not too happy about it. That changes as the two get to know each other. Along the way, they’re chased and robbed of everything by Armenian bandits. When Lillie finally arrives at the mission, she offers her services as a nurse in lieu of the lost supplies. Jude is fine with that; head surgeon Woodruff (Kingsley, Gandhi) is against it saying “This is no place for a woman.” If you didn’t see that line coming, get your eyes checked.
Lillie stays on and sees first-hand the atrocities of war. When she’s not treating patients, she’s running off to secretly meet Ismail. Jude “likes” her so he objects to their relationship. His jealousy ultimately leads to a physical altercation with Ismail which Lillie breaks up by firing a gun into the air. Yes, The Ottoman Lieutenant is that kind of a movie. Directed by Joseph Ruben (True Believer, Sleeping with the Enemy), you pretty much know everything that’s going to happen before the characters do. For example, it’s a foregone conclusion that Ismail will grow a conscience and realize what his people are doing to the Armenians is wrong. It leads to him uttering yet another hilariously clichéd line of dialogue, “This is not a request. I am ordering you to free these people.”
Visually, The Ottoman Lieutenant is beautiful even if many of the views of period Istanbul are CGI-rendered. At the same time, it all feels rather artificial. I was always aware I was watching a movie. I was always aware the characters were actors wearing costumes. The production design by Luca Tranchino is another matter. The sets and natural locations (shot gorgeously by cinematographer Daniel Aranyo) look great. The score by Geoff Zanelli is way overdramatic and always wells up at just the right moments.
Ruben cut costs by using old newsreel footage rather than recreate WWI battles and skirmishes in the region. Lillie fills in the blanks with narration like “The Ottomans took measures to stamp out Armenian rebels.” That’s like simply saying “The Nazis killed many Jews during WWII” and leaving it at that in a history class. Like I said, it’s a melodrama not a history lesson.
The individual performances by the two leads are okay but their chemistry feels forced. Their taboo romance is handled in so perfunctory a manner that it leaves the viewer feeling indifferent. I think it’s funny that they have a Dutch actor playing a Turk and an Icelandic actress playing an American. Hartnett’s performance as the bespectacled doc is stiff. Kingsley looks like he couldn’t care less; he can play this kind of role in his sleep which he appears to be doing here.
The Ottoman Lieutenant is a true guilty pleasure. It’s not particularly well done, it downplays issues that should be more important and it incites laughter when it shouldn’t. I’ve quoted several lines of dialogue (written by Jeff Stockwell who also penned The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) already but I’m going to give you one more so you have an idea of what to expect. As Lillie gazes awestruck at the mosque, she says, “It’s like being inside God’s thoughts.” Who says things like this in the real world? I shouldn’t like The Ottoman Lieutenant as much as I do but that’s the idea behind guilty pleasures. It’s sappy, corny, clichéd, trite and shallow yet somehow it works (sort of).