The Ottoman Lieutenant
by Hope Madden
With an almost offensively naïve – or more likely, revisionist – sense of history surrounding an entirely anachronistic amount of gumption, The Ottoman Lieutenant is the third historical romance to hit theaters in as many weeks.
And the weakest.
The lovely A United Kingdom struggled to find an authentic voice for the true story of Seretse and Ruth Khama’s love. Bitter Harvest, on the other hand, lacked the focus to use its love story to articulate the horrors of war.
Both films made a valiant effort to shine a light on a historical period. The Ottoman Lieutenant separates itself from the pack primarily with its open attempt to rewrite history, to make it more noble, palatable and romantic.
Lillie Rowe (Hera Hilmar) is a young woman of privilege. She’s also an American with a thick Icelandic accent, but no matter. Lillie spurns her stuffy 1914 Philadelphian upbringing in in favor of mission work in Anatolia, thanks to a cardboard-stiff speech given by mission doctor Jude Gresham (Josh Hartnett).
Once there, as Dr. Gresham falls in love with Lillie, she’s busy falling for Lieutenant Ismael Veli (Michiel Huisman) who, luckily, speaks English – as do all Turks in the film, even when they’re talking amongst themselves. How convenient!
Armenians – a population all but wiped from existence one year later – figure minutely in this soft focus clash between Muslims and Christians. But why tell their story just because your film is set in their backyard on the eve of their genocide? The important thing to understand is that, in war, everyone is wrong and only love is right.
That’s the gallingly simple outlook of the nurse with the tousled hair whose cloying voiceover tells us everything and nothing, simultaneously.
Though Joseph Ruben’s direction can never transcend Jeff Stockwell’s historically vacuous screenplay, the film often looks quite lovely. As does Hilmar, which is great as she is never called upon to act. She poses really well, though, and never laughs no matter how precious the dialog. Plus, Lillie has so many great hats!
It’s almost a shame Ben Kingsley shows up when he does because, even saddled as he is with this one-dimensional stereotype of a character, Ben Kingsley can act. His talent only exposes the balance of the cast for the posers (and poseurs) they are.
The Ottoman Lieutenant offers a lot of easily won wisdom and quick solutions – and hats. None of these strike me as items abounding during a time of war, but stark reality is not the goal of the film.
What the point is, I couldn’t tell you.