“The Ottoman Lieutenant” flirts with heavy-duty subject matter — the onset of World War I, the origins of the Armenian genocide — but at heart it’s basically a romance novel of no particular distinction.
Lillie (Hera Hilmer) was born to a wealthy Philadelphia family, but she can’t wait to leave her privileged life behind. Against her parents’ wishes she studied nursing.
Now, after attending a fund-raising lecture by an American MD (Josh Hartnett) operating a clinic in a far-flung region of Turkey, she finds the inspiration to travel across the ocean to dedicate herself to serving the poor of the Anatolia region.
Since the road from Constantinople is unsafe for a lone woman, Lillie is given a military escort, a dashing young lieutenant, Ismail (Michiel Huisman, a Danish actor familiar from the HBO series “Treme” and “Game of Thrones”). After a few close calls, she is delivered to the remote clinic where she is welcomed by Jude, the physician whose speech so inspired her.
A rather less hearty greeting is provided by the cranky and disillusioned Dr. Woodruff (Ben Kingsley) who doubts the usefulness of a moneyed American girl. . . at least until Lillie proves her worth in the wards and operating room.
Joseph Ruben’s film is basically a three-way love affair with both the young doctor and the Turkish lieutenant vying for Lillie’s favors.
But it’s hard to care. Hilmer, an Icelandic actress who speaks flat, unaccented English, is as insufferably bland as Lillie. There’s no spark in her relationship with either suitor.
At least there are cultural issues and the upheaval of a world war to deal with.
Lillie is Christian while Ismail is a follower of Islam. The Armenian peasants the clinic treats are Christian too and are regarded as rebels by the Turkish government. Once war breaks out and the region is invaded by Imperial Russian troops, the Turks view the Armenians as traitors and collaborators.
Jeff Stockwell’s screenplay offers one brief scene of Turkish troops executing Armenian civilians. Given that the Turkish government to this day denies that the Armenian genocide happened (historians estimate that 1.5 million Armenians were killed between 1915 and 1923), even this quick nod to that event represents an act of bravery on the part of the filmmakers — especially since they were shooting in Turkey.
The main reason to take in “The Ottoman Lieutenant” is for the sumptuous scenery, sets and David Lean-ish production values. There are moments when the movie is so visually beautiful that one can almost forget it's stillborn drama.