THE OTTOMAN LIEUTENANT
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Director: Joseph Ruben
Written by: Jeff Stockwell
Cast: Michiel Huisman, Hera Hilmar Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 2/24/17
Opens: March 10, 2017
If you learned in high school that World War One pitted the Ottoman Empire, Austria and Germany against Britain, France and Russia, you would not be entirely wrong. However, like other things taught in high school, the war was more complex. In Russia, Lenin would hold to the slogan, “Turn colonialist wars into civil war,” pulling Russia out of the war and into overturning the Czars. In Britain, Irish were seething to form their own country and to break away from the UK. And in the vast Ottoman Empire, which was later carved into a series of independent states under the rule of Britain and France, both Arabs and Armenians were plotting to break from a geographical entity that was just too large to be other than “the sick man of Europe.”
Though the Ottomans were opposed in 1914-1918 by Britain, France, Russia and America, to say nothing of Arabs and Armenians living in their borders, there was at least one good guy in the vast Middle-Eastern region and, of course, several good Americans. We learn this from Joseph Ruben’s “The Ottoman Lieutenant.” Ruben, whose 1991 feature “Sleeping with the Enemy” focused on a woman who faked her own death to avoid her husband, is more optimistic this time. His primary focus is on Lille (Hera Hilmar), who becomes bored with her more than comfortable life in the U.S., proving that it’s not only a one-way trek of Muslims who want to live in the U.S. to be safe from thugs like Assad. She courts danger by sailing to Istanbul and ultimately to a remote area of the Turkish lands, leaving her stiff-necked Christian parents to wonder what they did wrong.
It’s not the parents. In the Philadelphia hospital where she did her nursing, she watches in horror as doctors refuse to treat a black man who is bleeding to death because he is “in the wrong place,” and decides that even the lands across the seas would be more just. Though she finds herself in an American hospital in the Turkish sticks when full-scale war breaks out, she has no intention of moving back. She enjoys hanging out with Jude (Josh Hartnett), a handsome American doctor who is a volunteer, Woodruff (Ben Kingsley), the hospital’s founder, and most of all Ismail (Michiel Huisman), the title character, who is a dashing Turkish Muslim who speaks fluent English and is in love with her. In Jeff Stockwell’s script, a romantic triangle results for her hand, Ismail against Jude, while Ottomans are defending themselves against the Russian invaders, Armenians are subverting the Turks in the Empire, and—though not covered in this picture– Arabs are rebelling against the Ottomans as well.
Nobody is going to suggest that “The Ottoman Lieutenant” can stand up in any way against David Lean’s epic 216-minute film “Lawrence of Arabia,” the 1962 classics about a British officer and archeologist who unites the Arabs in their rebellion against the Turks. But director Ruben is at least as eager to highlight the romantic triangle as he is about the shootings and explosions of Ottomans vs. Russians. And what an adorable woman the Iceland-born Hera Hilmar is in the role of Lillie, a 23-year-old who goes where women are not supposed to go and where the hospital’s founder, Woodruff, tries at first to convince her to go home and leave him with the supplies she shipped with her on the long voyage to Istanbul.
Just a look from her and men would melt. And you can’t blame them. When she gazes into the eyes of handsome Ismail (in real life a Nederlander now living in New Orleans), the swashbuckling exotic who seems perfectly willing to break with the Koran and lie with a Christian woman, you can see the sparks fly.
In this “poor man’s Laurence of Arabia,” Daniel Aranyó behind the lens captures the vastness and beauty of the Turkish landscape, especially highlighting Cappadocia, today the leading tourist attraction outside of Istanbul. Horses gallop, men shoot one another, forbidden love is made. The whole business, though, is kitschy, which is not a bad thing, especially if you are the type of person who goes for Harlequin romances, saccharine emotions, swashbuckling action, tearful separations, and pulsing music. This is fare for the big screen, a movie that may encourage you to look for Hera Hilmar in future movies wherever Amy Adams types are required.
Unrated. 112 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, NY Film Critics Online