Film Review: ‘The Ottoman Lieutenant’

'The Ottoman Lieutenant' Review: War Is

Director Joseph Ruben's handsome but creaky melodrama is set in Turkey at the onset of World War I.

Hot on the heels of George Mendeluk’s “Bitter Harvest,” Joseph Ruben’s “The Ottoman Lieutenant” offers another theoretically noble if B-grade and somewhat propagandistic attempt to shed light on a murky historical chapter — while falling into a similar puddle of romance-novel cliches from which it can’t get up. After premiering at San Jose’s Cinequest on March 1, this handsome but creaky melodrama set at the onset of World War I opens in limited release in the U.S. on March 10. Less discriminating viewers jonesing for some old-fashioned costume hokum will get just that, but lack of critical support and marquee names should make the theatrical stay of this dusty slice of exotica a short one.

Immediately piling on the stale dramatic devices, both antiquated and revisionist, Jeff Stockwell’s screenplay opens with the retrospective voiceover musings of our heroine, Lillie Rowe (Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar, serving up a particularly flat American accent): “I thought I was going to change the world — but of course it was the world that changed me.” Lillie, a well-to-do young Philadelphian of 1914, bucks her privileged background by working as a nurse in a hospital that serves the poor, then expresses outrage when the hospital refuses to treat persons of color.

Her stuffy parents (Paul Barrett, Jessica Turner) are further mortified when their spinster-leaning 23-year-old daughter announces she will deliver a truck and medical supplies to a remote corner of Eastern Anatolia by herself, after hearing an impassioned pitch for assistance from mission doctor Jude Gresham (Josh Hartnett). One might well ask just where Lillie’s proto-feminist independence, her sense of class and racial injustice, et al. come from… but don’t bother. The film simply dumps a heap of modern progressive ideals on her character sans explanation, and Hilmar’s haplessly contemporary manner (she seems more like a peevish, self-righteous 21st-century teen than a young woman of a century ago) compounds the incongruity.

Upon arriving in Istanbul, Lillie instantly acquires a protector/guide in English-speaking Ismail Veli (Michiel Huisman, “Game of Thrones”), a lieutenant in the Ottoman Imperial Empire Army. He hopes her stay is “pleasant but brief… [because] there’s a war coming.” But she refuses to run homeward just yet, and in fact winds up with Ismail as her reluctant military escort, an assignment that requires him to do much quiet eye-rolling over her gosh-darn American gumption. After being relieved of their valuables by bandits, they arrive at Dr. Jude’s mission, where crusty but secretly tormented chief surgeon Woodruff (Ben Kingsley) curls her fists into a ball by snapping, “This is no place for a woman!” Moments later, of course, he is awe-struck by her basic medical competence.

Violent tensions between Armenian Christians and Turkish Muslims are already beginning to impact this remote area, soon to be exacerbated by the outbreak of WWI. But in this primarily Turkish-funded production, the historical, political, ethnic and other intricacies — not to mention that perpetual elephant in the room, the Armenian Genocide, which commenced in 1915 — are glossed over in favor of a generalized “Whattaya gonna do… war is bad” aura that implies conscience without actually saying anything. Against this backdrop of vague, sad loss (punctuated by occasional gore), foreground attention is given to the increasingly corny triangle among Lillie, Ismail and Jude, with the guys apparently finding her irresistible. (It helps, no doubt, that there appear to be no other women under 60 and over legal age hereabouts.) Intrigue, make-out sessions, gunfire, invading Russians, and dollops of Geoff Zanelli’s generically “sweeping” score nudge the story toward its inevitable tragic-but-resilient fadeout.

Though the film ultimately hinges on a “forbidden” Muslim-Christian romance, almost nothing is made of the enormous hurdles that would be present in this time and place. Instead, we get your basic spunky Western heroine forever complaining and being rescued by a dashing, swarthy rascal, when she’s not simply falling into his arms against a blazing sunset. Huisman does indeed brandish some dash, though he can’t single-handedly generate chemistry with his co-star. Hartnett is initially fine, albeit stuck in a role that grows more shrill and one-dimensional as it goes on. Kingsley appears to know this is not his finest hour; the fact that one can’t tell whether he’s expressing Dr. Woodruff’s embittered contempt or his own at the material may well be a deliberate effect. Subsidiary roles are negligible in yet another screen enterprise wherein locals are more or less extras in a story about their own regional history.

Silly and unconvincing as “The Ottoman Lieutenant” too often is, its assembly is solidly pro. Director Ruben contributes a smart pace as well as another left turn in a resume that, from “The Pom Pom Girls” to “The Stepfather” to uneven recent thrillers, cannot be accused of dull predictability. Shot in the Czech Republic as well as Turkey, the film’s polished if not quite epic-scaled production values are highlighted by Daniel Aranyo’s attractive widescreen lensing.

Film Review: 'The Ottoman Lieutenant'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Feb. 27, 2017. (In Cinequest Film Festival.) MPAA rating: R. Running time: 110 MIN.

Production

(U.S.-Turkey) A Paladin release (U.S.) of a Y Production and Eastern Sunrise Films production in association with Barrandov Studios. Producers: Stephen Joel Brown, Alinur Velidedeoglu, Gunes Celikcan, Merve Zorlu, Yusuf Esenkal, Serdar Ogretici. Executive producers: Ron Bareham, William Stuart, Anthony J. Lynn. Co-producer: Michael E. Steele.

Crew

Director: Joseph Ruben. Screenplay: Jeff Stockwell. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Daniel Aranyo. Editors, Nick Moore, Dennis Virkler. Music: Geoff Zanelli.

With

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, Deniz Kilic Flak. (English, Turkish dialogue.)

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  1. John says:

    The history of the Armenian Genocide is described in astonishing detail by Professor Raymond Kevorkian in “The Armenian Genocide” (London: I. B. Tauris. 2011), a major publication on this subject with 1000+ pages. You can find a lecture by Prof. Kevorkian on YouTube.

    Other major historians of the Armenian Genocide who published important new books are Taner Akcam and Ronald Grigor Suny…Just take a look at Amazon.

    What happened can’t be denied.
    The Turkish people should wake up.

  2. Marshall D. Moushigian says:

    Good review, and good to point out that this “film” is in large part a hapless attempt to show that the Ottomans could hardly conceive and carry out a genocide against the Armenians.

  3. Bérj says:

    First of all I want to thank Mr. Denis Harvey for writing such a great review and exposing the truth behind this film. I followed The Ottoman Lieutenant as soon as it was posted on IMDB. I suspected from the title and timing of its release that it would be a Turkish propaganda film made to deny the Armenian Genocide. I even wrote an article about it.

    In this day and age when so many people have been victims of genocide and holocaust, one would think the Turkish government would learn from its own history and try to change their ways. As a filmmaker, I find this movie to be a great insult to the magic of movie making, because it abuses the medium of cinema to distort history. I understand the talent and crew are just trying to make a living, however, as industry professionals, we should take more responsibility with portraying characters and depicting scenarios that deal with such sensitive and serious subject matters.

    I am the grandson of Armenian Genocide survivors raised in America. Armenian’s deserve to have Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers and talent tell the truth about our tragic history. Steven Spielberg made an amazing film about the Holocaust with Schindler’s List. It would be great if he could get Steven Zaillian to write a screenplay and make a movie about the Armenian Genocide too.

    I also want to thank Variety for supporting the truth.

  4. Not Impressed says:

    I think it’s also time we have a movie made to point things out from a German perspective regarding the WWII incidents, since these types of movies are actually, you know, allowed.

  5. Not Impressed says:

    So let me get this straight Variety: I can’t point out the filmmaker’s ethnicity, or else have my right to comment rescinded… correct?

  6. David says:

    That was probably the best review of a film I’ve ever read and I will wait until it’s on cable just for the “lensing” of those scenes in Anatolia.
    If it was financed by the Turkish Govt and set in 1914, I’d have to assume it was a propoganda film to pre-empt other (hopefully better) films (like the Promise and Sand Castle girls) which are due to premier and deal directly with the Armenian Genocide in 1915. Â

  7. Cari says:

    So Ben Kingsley recognized the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by Turks then took Turkish money to star in Turkish propaganda?

    • John says:

      Ben Kingsley will star in anything as long as his pay check is big enough.
      Forgot about his performance as a vampire in Uwe Boll’s trashy “Bloodrayne” (2005) ?

      But maybe the actors didn’t know ?
      Maybe they got a screenplay that told a slightly different story ?

  8. Cal says:

    Good review: “But in this primarily Turkish-funded production, the historical, political, ethnic and other intricacies — not to mention that perpetual elephant in the room, the Armenian Genocide, which commenced in 1915 — are glossed over in favor of a generalized “Whattaya gonna do… war is bad” aura…” That’s exactly the point of this movie. It wants to make people forget about the Armenian Genocide by just showing some chaotic war scenario where it’s unclear who-did-what-and-why.

    This is the reason why this revisionist Turkish co-production – which probably used hidden Turkish state funding – was made. It’s the ‘anti-movie’ to the upcoming “The Promise” by Terry George with Christian Bale, which dares to call the Armenian Genocide what it was.

    The historical truth is different: The documents and actions by the Ottoman Empire clearly show that the mass murder of up to 2 million Armenians was a highly planned and carefully organized event.
    That was necessary, because otherwise it wouldn’t have worked. The Young Turks of the Ottoman Empire first made a list of the Armenian elite, then killing them all at once. The next step was, that the Armenians were lied to, that they would only be deported and get their belongings, including land and houses, back later. Then they were killed by starving them in the desert etc.

    The Armenian Genocide was so carefully planned, because the Young Turks wanted to avoid that any evidence of their mass murder would be visible for the next generations. That’s why they used tricks, deception and mostly the desert as a tool for killing.

    The Turkish-Dutch historian/sociologist Prof. Dr. Ugur Üngör is an expert on the Armenian Genocide and wrote multiple books about these tragic events. He describes them in a well-researched and vivid way in his 30 min. presentation on YouTube.

    I read years ago that he made interviews with old Turkish witnesses to the atrocities & was interested to produce a documentary using his footage. That film should be done. I want to see that.

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