The Ottoman Lieutenant is an ill-conceived film from the very beginning.
Marketing itself as “the first movie to explore the eastern front of World War I,” really The Ottoman Lieutenant is yet another vaguely historical romantic drama, where the biggest question isn’t “Whatever will happen to the tension between the Turks and the Armenians, and how does it shape World War I, the Middle East, and the future of Islamic/Christian relations?” but instead “What handsome man will the pretty white American woman choose?” The “history” of this film is so superficially explored and the film so unwilling to offer any kind of genuine tension or unlikable characters (aside from evil Muslim Turks, of course) that it never rises above generic love story into anything more meaningful, educational, or memorable.
The film, set in the early 20th century, focuses on American nurse Lillie (Hera Hilmar), whose grief over her dead brother and her disgust with the country’s segregation and racism leads her to, on a whim, leave behind her wealthy parents and travel to Turkey after she hears one of the doctors of a remote hospital discuss their mission to offer healthcare to all people in the region, whether they are Muslim Turks or Christian Armenians. The dislike between the two ethnic groups is strong, but an American flag flies over the hospital, and the doctor, Jude (Josh Hartnett), describes Eastern Anatolia as a “place of unspeakable violence … but it is also a place of fierce spirit.”
It’s into this totally unknown world that Lillie arrives, on her first day in Istanbul meeting the handsome Turkish Army Lieutenant Ismail (Michiel Huisman), who sneaks her into a mosque that she describes as feeling like she’s “inside God’s thoughts.” That’s about all her experience with Islam and Muslim ideology although she’s in a country that is predominantly that faith because at the hospital, she and Jude are both Christians.
The creator of the mission, the doctor Woodruff (Ben Kingsley), isn’t as welcoming to Lillie as Jude is, though—upon first seeing her, he declares that the hospital is “no place for a woman.” But while he is, in fact, sexist and grumpy, the reality is also that strife between the Muslim Ottoman Empire and the rebellious Christian Armenians, who want their own country, is growing. As the buildup to World War I continues, Lillie finds the world around her changing, with more injured people coming to the hospital, more movement at the garrison near the hospital, and more interactions between her and Ismail.
The growing friendship between the two of them isn’t unnoticed by Jude, who clearly has a thing for Lillie and whose Christian faith automatically aligns him more with the Armenians than with the Turks. He answers “yes” when Ismail asks if “Just because I wear a uniform and carry a gun, that makes me a killer?” and he practically grills Ismail on whether Lillie’s “honor” is still intact after they spend an afternoon together. And so that love triangle preoccupies most of the film, while the very bloody fighting between the Armenians and the Turks takes a backseat.
The Ottoman Lieutenant somewhat alludes to the differences in ideology between Muslims and Christians and relies on archival footage to depict the destruction of World War I, but that backdrop isn’t the clear focus here—how Lillie chooses between Ismail and Jude is. But it’s strange, then, that the film is named after Ismail’s character instead of Lillie, whose journey—of leaving wealthy Philadelphia behind to pursue a career in medicine in a place she’s never been, in a language she doesn’t speak, in a faith she doesn’t understood—is theoretically far more interesting. Instead, it’s Ismail who gets solo missions; it’s Ismail whose concerns about the Turkish Muslims and their tactics are highlighted; it’s Ismail who makes major choices that save people’s lives.
Not only does the film tracing his arc feel like an undermining of Lillie’s story, but it takes away from subplots worth exploring about what happened during the Armenian genocide, what occurred to Armenian culture in the region afterward, and how World War I shaped the Ottoman Empire and what the Middle East would look like. It’s not like all of those things could have been answered in this film’s 100-minute runtime, but it’s frustrating how singularly the film focuses on Ismail at the loss of so many other opportunities.
There are some things here that work: A relationship between Lillie and a young patient gives the American woman some legitimate character development that her romance with Ismail doesn’t; Kingsley adds a sheen of dignity to a character who is (predictably) tortured by loss; and some of the landscapes are pretty enough, even though they mostly look like CGI. But Hartnett feels particularly miscast, and how the movie positions Jude as a controlling jerk whose obsession with Lillie is OK because of his faith and devotion is repulsive at times (like when he spits at Lillie, “My God, I can smell him,” but then goes to pray afterward). Similarly irritating is how unwilling the film is to truly explore the overlapping and divergent elements of Christianity and Islam; for a plot that relies so centrally on the relationship between followers of those religions, the movie doesn’t do much to get into why.
Overall, The Ottoman Lieutenant feels like a first draft that was roughly edited without being reconciled—from the movie pivoting away from its would-be protagonist to telling a story that doesn’t dig deep enough into itself. An enlightening film could be made about this particular place in the world at that particular time, but The Ottoman Lieutenant isn’t it.
RATING: 2 OUT OF 5 GUTTENBERGS