Between “The Ottoman Lieutenant” and next month’s “The Promise,” audiences can look forward to not one but two movies about love triangles set against the fall of the Ottoman Empire. When it rains, it pours, I guess. (But who, exactly, asked for this?)
Maybe viewers who want to see the record set straight about what came to be known as the Armenian genocide. But don’t look to “The Ottoman Lieutenant” to present evidence of war crimes. It isn’t so much a war movie as a melodrama that uses violence as a convenient backdrop for romantic intrigue.
And that’s not the only problem. The trouble starts with the casting. As strong-willed American nurse Lillie, Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar never quite nails the accent required to play the daughter of a well-to-do family in 1914 Philadelphia. In the opening scene, she tries to save a black man who’s bleeding to death in her hospital, only to be upbraided by her superiors for helping someone who they claim doesn’t belong in a whites-only facility.
“I thought I was going to change the world,” Lillie says, during the mawkish voice-over narration. “Of course, it was the world that changed me.”
After meeting Jude (a wooden Josh Hartnett), an inspirational doctor who has been working at a remote hospital in Anatolia, Lillie volunteers to hand-deliver medical supplies there. Against her parents’ wishes, she boards a steamship for Turkey, arriving on the cusp of World War I, just as tensions are boiling over between the Christian Armenians and the Muslim Turks. But don’t give any of that too much thought. The real focus is the drama between Lillie, Jude and a dashing Turkish officer named Ismail (Michiel Huisman, who, despite being Dutch, is slightly better at accents).
A lieutenant in the Ottoman army, Ismail is the military escort assigned to deliver Lillie to Jude’s hospital. Predictably, Ismail and Lillie don’t get along at first. Nor does she mesh with the cranky old man in charge of the hospital, Dr. Woodruff (Ben Kingsley, who is essentially playing a cliche). Woodruff drones on about how the hospital is no place for a woman, then questions Lillie’s credentials: “You can’t even recognize typhus? Where did you get your training?”
Here’s a better question: How long will it take before both men come around? Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.
As bloodied victims come straggling into the hospital, Lillie is confronted with a difficult choice between the increasingly sanctimonious Jude, with whom she nevertheless has a lot in common, and the mysterious Muslim officer. Given Ismail’s winning smile — not to mention the title of the movie — it’s pretty obvious where this is going.
Along the way, there are a few moments of genuine suspense, with Ismail out in the field battling Armenians. The movie takes great pains to show that he’s reluctant to spill blood; he’s just following orders.
But morality is hardly the main concern of “The Ottoman Lieutenant.” Instead, it’s content with hackneyed romance and soaring strings. Better luck next month, when “The Promise” comes out.
R. At area theaters. Contains some war violence. 109 minutes.