THE OTTOMAN LIEUTENANT (2016) review
written by: Jeff Stockwell
produced by: Stephen Joel Brown
directed by: Joseph Ruben
rating: R (for some war violence)
runtime: 106 min.
U.S. release date: March 10, 2016 (limited)
Only a couple weeks ago the so-so historical drama “Bitter Harvest” came out in limited release and now we have another one in “The Ottoman Lieutenant”, which is heavier on the old-fashioned sweeping romance and lighter on the bland dread of the dark side of wartime humanity. Both films piqued my curiosity because of their subgenres, their supporting cast – George Mendeluk’s “Bitter Harvest” had Barry Pepper and Terence Stamp, while this film has Josh Hartnett and Ben Kingsley (call it a “Lucky Number Slevin” reunion) – and both films cover certain periods in history or areas in the world that seldom receives attention. Of the two, I prefer Joseph Ruben’s “The Ottoman Lieutenant” for its protagonists, exotic locations and curious cast, as well as a story that, although familiar, offers a silly romance as escapism from reality – something I’m not adverse to. Now, for those of you who read the film’s title and thought “a low upholstered foot stool”, “The Ottoman Lieutenant” should automatically be required viewing, purely to serve you up some schooling. Actually, the title oddly does not refer to the main protagonist, but rather the source of her attraction, as if we’re perusing through her diary and stopping on a chapter in her life when she had a fling with an inexplicably handsome officer and a gentleman.
The protagonist I hint at is our heroine, Lillie Rowe (played by Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar, injecting the film with a delightful presence), a young independent spirit ready to ditch her well-to-do Philadelphia life in 1914 to share her benevolent spirit with the world. She works as a nurse assistant and has grown tired of and doesn’t necessarily feel connected to her aristocratic life and one day she sits in on a local presentation from an idealistic missionary doctor, Jude Gresham (Josh Hartnett), who is asking for donations or, better yet, volunteers to help his work in Anatolia, Turkey. Right then and there, wide-eyed Lillie decides she’s going to single-handedly transport a vehicle full of supplies and herself off to the foreign land, much to her parent’s combined chagrin.
When she arrives, the dear-in-headlights immediately meets Ismail Veli (Michiel Huisman, “Game of Thrones”, “Age of Adaline”), a handsome English-speaking lieutenant in the Ottoman Imperial Empire Army. Their eyes lock and we can see what’s to come, yet the climate they are in is about to get volatile as he welcomes her and hopes she doesn’t plan on staying long since there’s a war coming (WWI, to be specific). Learning of her intended destination, Ismail offers to escort her to the remote compound where Jude works and after a bit of action involving some bandits running her vehicle off the road and stealing her supplies, the pair arrive on horseback, looking as if they rode in from a romance novel.
Recognizing her from Philly and smitten by Lillie’s eager spirit (and beautiful looks, let’s be honest, he’s a guy and this is a romance with a looming love triangle), the doctor takes her in as an assistant, despite reluctance from Dr. Woodruff (Ben Kingsley), the surly chief surgeon who runs the clinic. Nevertheless, she persists – and in no time Lillie is by their side, tending to the sick and wounded as her Ottoman lieutenant is called back to his local responsibilities in the army.
As alluded to, escalating tensions rise between Armenian Christians and Turkish Muslims (which will ultimately result in Armenian genocide) and it becomes clear that violence will be coming closer to Lillie and the clinic she works at. As we follow her days treating patients and assimilating to life in the picturesque Turkish countryside, we eventually get some backstory as to the tragedies that Dr. Woodruff endured and watch as the revisiting Ismail competes for the affection of our protagonist with the watchful Dr. Gresham. Indeed, Lillie will soon be tasked with making a decision as to who she will give her heart to, while the threat of war is just around the corner.
The film’s title resolves any questions of the heart that come with the love triangle we are subjected to. It’s right there who Lillie is going to choose. She’s no dummy. Even as a middle-aged, married white guy it’s pretty obvious who I’d go for if the choices were: hard-working, albeit timid, increasingly jealous doctor and insanely charming and courageous solider with awesome hair. Yes, I can be that shallow and so can this screenplay by John Stockwell (“Bridge to Terabithia”), which takes an age-old plot device of a love triangle set against the backdrop of life-and-death turmoil of war. In my recent review of “Bitter Harvest”, which has very similar plots, I mentioned how the apex of this plot device appeared in Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor”, which starred Hartnett and yet here the actor is, once again taking part in a love triangle. That’s a sad and unfortunate full circle revisit.
While Stockwell’s screenplay doesn’t offer any kind of unique take on the cliched plot device, I found myself relenting and being won over by the whole package that Ruben presents here. That’s not to say what I was watching was great, it’s just that I had recently seen “Bitter Harvest” and this was a step, for sure. One step, at least. There are moments of utter eye-rolling ridiculousness, like when Hartnett instigates fisticuffs with Huisman over Lillie. Groan. It’s awful and it even seems like Huisman is laughing internally seeing as how adept at combat his Daarios Naharis character is in “Game of Thrones”. It’s kind of embarrassing to watch and I was thankful when Kingsley’s seemingly ambivalent doctor comes out, fires a shot in the air and yells, “Stop!” I couldn’t agree more.
The romance in “The Ottoman Lieutenant” tries to be like the movie it sounds like ,”The English Patient”, and I definitely was reminded of that Oscar winner as I watched this. I thought about it primarily because it was easy to see that Hilmar and Huisman clearly do not have the chemistry that Thomas and Fiennes did. Their relationship is more akin to an older brother looking after a sister, so when it develops into close-up shots of his hands on her thighs and draping clothing, it’s a little forced. But it’s not like the two are ever convincingly destined to spend the rest of their lives together. This is just a chapter in Lillie’s journey entitled, “That Dreamy Guy I Met in Anatolia”.
Don’t look for historical accuracy in this film, since Stockwell and Ruben are content to insert newsreel-type segments to connote time and provide a Cliff Note’s version of the events surrounding the love triangle. It seems a little convenient, confusing and somewhat fuzzy on truth. This isn’t the History Channel, but I honestly didn’t know what to expect considering it involves the Armenian Genocide and yet the film was financed by “Turkish sources and produced by Turkish producers”.
There is a theme of resilience throughout “The Ottoman Lieutenant”, one which is essentially laced throughout Lillie’s character arch. It supports her progressive mindset and fights off Dr. Woodruff’s initial misogyny and challenges Ismail’s mindset about destiny. While overly familiar in plot and characterization, one cannot deny that director Ruben (known for 1987’s “The Stepfather” and 1991’s “Sleeping with the Enemy”) has landed some fine production design with great cinematography and a sweeping score. This is certainly not a movie to rush out and see, but it’s not necessarily a waste of your time if you do decide to catch up with it eventually.