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.