It’s packaged as a love triangle romance in time of war. Its director was behind the break-out Julia Roberts thriller “Sleeping with the Enemy,” and the screenwriter adapted “Bridge to Terabithia.”
But “The Ottoman Lieutenant,” a drama set in the corner of the Ottoman Empire called Anatolia during World War I, has greater aims. Its titular hero and entire point of view seems aimed at correcting the world’s attitudes toward the “Armenian Genocide” that is the backdrop for this romance. And while there are scholarly points to be made in that argument, this picturesque but slow and corny romance is hardly the right place to make them.
The story takes place in a region “of unspeakable violence,” torn by massacres, mass uprootings, treachery and lawlessness. There are Turkish troops facing brigands and rebels — Armenians quick to show support for Russian incursions into the empire after Germany tricked the Ottomans into joining their side in The Great War.
Josh Hartnett is Dr. Jude Gresham, a heroic caregiver in a hospital in the region. On a fundraising trip to Philadelphia, he tells stories of a population under threat, ethnic strife and the urgent need for medical care to an appreciative audience. That inspires an idealistic, free-thinking, wealthy young nurse (Hera Hilmar) to make her way East, and to bring her late brother’s truck with her.
Maybe she’s inspired by the handsome doctor, too.
But Lily Rowe’s eyes are opened the moment she debarks in Istanbul. A dashing stranger (Michiel Huisman) shows her a little of the city, including the great mosque. She is charmed, even if when it comes to her reason for being there, he isn’t having it.
“Miss Rowe? Go home. Go home immediately.”
Naturally, the stranger turns out to be a Turkish officer, an Ottoman Lieutenant. And his superiors may share his concerns, but they see a different solution to the problem of Miss Rowe. Lt. Ismail Valli will escort the American nurse, and her truck, to the hospital in East Anatolia.
Along the way, they see evidence of atrocities — “This wasn’t done by my army.” They face armed bandits (Armenians).
Eventually, he gets her to her hospital, which is coping with a typhus epidemic and a shortage of everything. The founder of the institution (Ben Kingsley) is not impressed.
“This is no place for a woman! We are drowning in death!”
But fierce Lily stays, and in between surgical assistance and romantic boat and horseback rides, finds herself torn between two would-be lovers. Or would, if the simplistic script could manage that simple feat.
The passionate doctor insists that they will treat whoever comes through their doors, but he has taken sides in the conflict. The passionate lieutenant sees things from a world-weary Turkish point of view.
“Freedom is an illusion. We all take the role we’re given.”
And Lily? She is swept up by the guy with the longer hair and uniform.
The Turkish and Czech settings are novel, with striking views of Mount Ararat, and the action sequences handled with skill. Newsreel footage of the World War pepper Lily’s narrated memories of the time.
Hartnett is more impressive in this role than you might guess, “Game of Thrones” veteran Guisman doesn’t embarrass himself, and Kingsley must have taken his small, testy role simply as a show of moral support. He’s played more than a few Turks over the years, and even if he isn’t cast as one, he signs on to the film’s message by being in it.
Young Miss Hilmar of the recent Keira Knightley “Anna Karenina” doesn’t give us much that suggests either possessing passion or inspiring it.
But they’re all stuck in this soap opera bent on historical revisionism. Even if you accept recent, measured scholarship by the likes of Middle East historian Eugene Rogan (“The Fall of the Ottomans”), who recounts in detail the civil war the Turks have long claimed as an excuse for the Armenian death toll, the film plays like Turkish propaganda. No hint of Kurd-driven/Turk-directed Armenian death marches of the historical record.
And even Rogan doesn’t discount that genocide happened, and that Armenian eagerness to be “rescued” by the Russians wasn’t an unreasonable hope, given Turkish/Kurdish oppression and abuses of the population.
So while there are extenuating circumstances that muddy the waters, that’s not enough to justify outright cinematic historical revisionism. That’s what this “Lieutenant” aims for.
What we’re left with is a botched romance saddled with an over-arching, over-reaching message, one that only the Turks will be quick to embrace.
MPAA Rating:R for some war violence
Credits:Directed by Joseph Ruben, script by Jeff Stockwell. A Paladin/Falco release.
Running time: 1:46