Film Review: The Ottoman Lieutenant

Set against a World War I background in the Middle East and dealing with the Christian-Muslim conflict, this wannabe sweeping saga should be both deeply relevant and exciting. It is neither.
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The Ottoman Lieutenant tells the story of liberal-minded Lillie Rowe (Hera Hilmar), born to a rich Philadelphia family at the turn of the century, who bucks her social caste and dashes off to Turkey to help a comely doctor, Jude Gresham (Josh Hartnett), at a Christian mission there, just as World War I is breaking out. Arriving in Turkey, she meets Ismail Veli (Michiel Huisman), a Muslim lieutenant in the Royal Ottoman army, and although he’s cold to her too-American ways in the beginning, he warms up nicely and becomes a romantic rival for Gresham.

When war does happen, director Joseph Ruben’s film—from a pancake-thin screenplay by Jeff Stockwell—becomes a repetitive montage of sobering “war is hell” images—reenactments uneasily mixed with doc footage—interspersed with the threesome’s romantic squabbles. Very little information is vouchsafed regarding the war and its causes, although, in the interest of some kind of drama, the tensions between the Armenian Christians and Turkish Muslims are touched upon, mainly because of all the canoodling going on twixt Lillie and Ismail.

One can sense from almost the very beginning how tonally off this would-be epic in the grand tradition of The Four Feathers, Lawrence of Arabia and The Man Who Would Be King is. It starts with Hilmar’s performance, so mousy, flat, anachronistically modern and lacking in charisma or any other positive quality which would constitute a fit and admirably proactive, self-possessed heroine. Also noxious is the hoary placement of a few romantically entangled white people (Huisman is very pale) in the midst of real historic turmoil, and actually expecting an intelligent, diverse audience in 2017 to root for, and more insultingly, identify with them. The two handsome wax figures in uniforms squabble away continually over Lillie, who, all her good intentions aside, is not a great prize to begin with. Are we supposed to give a rat’s ass? You wind up knowing a helluva lot about their ever-shifting moods in regard to the love that burns within them, but very little about the war, its causes and exact historical ramifications in this region.

Huisman (“Game of Thrones”) isn’t so bad, but then there is Hartnett, cinema’s ubiquitous, hollow male juvenile who can be so excruciatingly mannered when he attempts any kind of depth, especially in period fare, as if he decided this always calls for him to become some kind of storybook hero (wrong!). Then we have Sir Ben Kingsley, as he insists on being called in private life, phoning in a hammy turn as a cynical doctor possessed of a singularly wavering Amurrican accent. His suffocatingly bad histrionic choices of late have led me to wonder if Oscars can be rescinded.

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