There’s an unwritten rule, or at least I’d like to think so, that what we consider to be bad movies are a part of a different conversation than the so-bad-they’re-good camp. We understand that even the worst of the blockbuster clunkers have some redeeming virtues under the layers of crap; Ben Affleck was a decent Batman and, according to the Academy, Suicide Squad had good makeup effects. But sifting through the dusty antiquated ashes of The Ottoman Lieutenant all that was left were hazy superficialities and a story that’s a series of lethargic dead-ends. It’s evident The Ottoman Lieutenant is reaching for old-fashioned romanticism a la Casablanca or Passage to Marseille but it only succeeds in evoking a counterfeit reflection of its forebears.
After an exceptionally generic introductory voice-over from our protagonist Lillie (Hera Hilmar)–I thought I was going to change the worlds but, of course, it was the world that changed me.”–The Ottoman Lieutenant kicks off with our protagonist working as a nurse in 1914 Philadelphia. Lillie is appalled when she sees her staff turn away a black patient, thus inspiring our monotone heroine to throw off the shackles of her comfortable, wealthy life and deliver medical supplies to Anatolia because of a speech she heard by the idealistic doctor Jude Gresham (Josh Hartnett, if anyone cares). Of course, this proclamation mortifies her parents, who are already peeved she hasn’t settled down with a family at the ripe age of 23, saying they’ve “indulged her whims – nursing, your work with the poor.”
Contesting the era’s sexist attitude is obviously an attempt to instill Lillie as a proto-feminist in a bid to contemporize the old formula of wartime melodrama.
However, Lillie is too often a one-dimensional accessory who subverts any attempt toward feminism when she goes doe-eyed after meeting Ismail (Michiel Huisman, Khaleesi’s hunky beau from Game of Thrones), who becomes her mentor and radio for exposition.
Sappily half-hearted and laughably instructional, the plot and dialogue are about as thoughtful as a paint-by-numbers history lesson. After a skirmish with bandits who steal their McGuffin medical supplies. When they arrive at Dr. Jude’s compound, the love angle gets an expansion to a triangle and introduces the curmudgeonly tormented surgeon Woodruff, Ben Kingsley. This resurrects the gender power-play that the movie seemingly forgot about for the hackneyed love story by berating Lillie, only to be instantly corrected by her expertise. How convenient, though for whom I’m not all that sure.
As inconsistent as these flimsy tonal shifts are, it makes one wonder why they bother tooling with these tropes in the first place? Kingsley’s character emits a volcanic temper, but his talents are frittered away, and his presence is merely another racially ambiguous personage in this glossily realized soap opera attempting to hide behind the urgency of a war story – but, hey he played Gandhi, right? Lillie and Ismail’s romance relies on the “forbidden fruit” love story after circling a love triangle that quickly dissolves as Hartnett’s character is predictably edged out for the brawny, cultured Huisman, it’s obvious after a few steamy make-out sessions and dangerous encounters that the tides of love will shift in his direction.
The Ottoman Lieutenant staggers its way through the onset of WWI with stock footage and more of Hera Hilmar’s tiring voiceover hitting on the historical milestones, read as if they were written by a middle schooler fudging a history report before their deadline. She recounts that “full scale war was raging in Europe, it became known as the first world war, the war to end all wars – we read news about the horror of trench warfare” etc. sure, that’s fundamentally true even though nobody was calling World War One, “World War One” until there was a second world war, but hey, who’s counting right?
When you scrape the bottom of the barrel of less desirable assembly line fare, you occasionally turn up some commendable qualities, such as technical aspects. But the crop lines around the actor’s profiles confirm the poor green screen effects and deny that possible accolade. The location footage around Turkey and the Czech Republic is satisfying, better watched on mute to drown out the expository dialogue playing over it. One scene featuring The Citadel of Salah El-Din mosque is uniformly appealing, paired with some establishing landscape shots but hardly worth the price of admission. The Ottoman Lieutenant functions as a semi-attractive romance but all the signs lead us nowhere. The love story wriggles like a worm, the potential for feminist allegory is squandered, and the narrative postures itself as something important when it’s simply a half-hearted soaper.
The Ottoman Lieutenant has the same veneer of this year’s Bitter Harvest (another B-grade historical melodrama to come out with proximity) and retains the similar hammy, dramatic turgidity; I was surprised to learn they were different writers and directors.
For all intents and purposes, The Ottoman Lieutenant offers less than nothing; the love story would have more resonance in a contemporary setting, the production grasps for a tone it can’t possibly reach, and the 103-minute runtime went on forever.