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‘The Ottoman Lieutenant’ (review)

Produced by Stephen Joel Brown
Written by Jeff Stockwell
Directed by Joseph Ruben
Starring Michiel Huisman, Hera Hilmar,
Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley


The press notes for The Ottoman Lieutenant declare that the filmmakers wanted to make a sweeping, old-fashioned epic in the tradition of Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago.

Sadly, a lackluster leading lady and the dubious setting of World War I Turkey make it an early candidate for worst movie of the year.

Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar stars as Lillie Rowe, an idealistic American girl who journeys to Turkey in 1914 to serve as a nurse after meeting a doctor (Josh Hartnett) who’s made the hospital there his life’s work.

Unfortunately, Hilmar is called on to narrate large chunks of the film and her American accent is as flat and unconvincing as her acting. She’s supposed to be a spirited woman who blazes her own trail, but, as played by Hilmar, she’s a placid and dull heroine. It’s hard to see why Hartnett and the dashing Turkish soldier Ismail (Michiel Huisman) both fall for her.

The two men represent the factions who will soon be at war: Ismail is a Turkish soldier while Jude (Hartnett) sympathizes with the local Armenians and even hides weapons for them.

The biggest objection for many is likely that the film, which is co-funded by Turkey, fails to address the infamous Armenian Genocide of 1915. I’m no expert on Turkish history, but I do know that every April 24th in Los Angeles, Armenians march to ask Turkey to finally admit — more than 100 years later — that this slaughter actually happened.

There are references to some Armenians “being rounded up” and we see a few men hung and bodies scattered in the field. And, near the end of the film, once war has broken out, Ismail and Lillie rescue several Armenians, including women and children, from some Turkish soldiers who clearly mean them harm.

But the focus of the film remains firmly on the romantic triangle. The plight of the Armenians is mostly used as another component in the battle between Jude and Ismail for Lillie’s heart.

That’s hardly the film’s only problem: Take this poorly written scene where Lillie, Jude and Ismail accompany a young Armenian girl who’s just recovered from typhus back to her family’s village. As they enter the village, they see buildings on fire, with clouds of black smoke rising. They’re shocked at the scene — never mind that those columns of smoke could have been seen from miles away. And what does Lillie do? Instead of dismounting and hanging back with the girl as someone else determines whether her family has all been slaughtered or if it’s safe to proceed, the group simply saunters up to a house where — hurrah — the girl’s grandmother is alive and well. What luck!

In the press notes, producer Merve Zorlu says he hopes that the film, in which a Muslim and a Christian fall in love, gives the message that “love knows no cultural boundaries… and that that “is even more relevant in the world today.”

Perhaps that message would be better served against a different backdrop, or with characters that aren’t fictitious but actually rooted in reality.

The best thing in the film is Sir Ben Kingsley, who plays the bitter, ether-addicted doctor who founded the hospital in Turkey and is constantly telling Lillie to go home.

The only other thing to recommend it: The beautiful cinematography by Daniel Aranyó. He captures some beautiful landscapes that are the only reason this film could ever be compared to a David Lean epic.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars

The Ottoman Lieutenant is now playing in limited release


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