THE OTTOMAN LIEUTENANT is a slight but eminently humane story, lushly filmed, and richly romantic. It follows the classic tropes of the romance genre, enhanced with nuanced performances that elevate what might otherwise be stock characters in a plot with few surprises. The biggest surprise being that it is so satisfying as entertainment, and as an anti-war essay.
It finds its spirited heroine in Lillie Rowe (Hera Hilmar) a nurse with progressive ideas. She is chafing at the restrictions of 1914 Philadelphia when the handsome Dr. Jude Grisham (Josh Hartnett) visits on a fundraising mission for the hospital he runs in Anatolia, Lillie decides to help him. Despite the strong disapproval of her parents, and everyone else telling her that it’s impossible, she purchases medical supplies, donates her late brother’s truck, and sets out for Anatolia on her own to deliver them. There, she finds purpose, romance, and a harsh lesson in geo-politics in Anatolia. The first at the hospital, where she must prove herself to the brusque and skeptical, Dr. Woodruff (Sir Ben Kingsley); the second courtesy of a chance encounter with the eponymous Turkish officer, Ismail (Michiel Huisman); the third when Lillie and Ismail, on their way to the hospital, are confronted by Christian rebels who want both the goods and the Muslim lieutenant’s life.
Of course, Lillie and Ismail have an instant attraction that is both intellectual, spiritual, and carnal. Of course, Jude also falls hard for the plucky nurse. Of course, Dr. Woodruff is revealed to have a soft heart beneath his gruff exterior. Still, there’s an epic sweep to the story, thanks to restrained by affecting direction, frankly epic landscapes, and an even franker sensuality made all the more potent by its restraint. By the time Ismail and Lillie share their first kiss, the urgency of their raging hormones is palpable.
As I mentioned, it’s the actors that save this from being a soggy cliché. There is no chewing of that lovely scenery here. Hilmar’s quiet strength conveys Lillie’s steely convictions. She reacts to obstacles not with stubbornness, but by continuing in the trajectory she has decided upon without regard for societal expectation. Huisman, the soul of romance, eschews brooding in favor of a philosophical surrender to the career imposed on him by his family, a career for which he has no taste, but which he fulfills with honor and a mordant sense of humor. He also sits a horse magnificently. Kingsley, in truly memorable turn, is devastating as a broken-hearted idealist going through the motions. Hartnett pales a bit in comparison. His is the least interesting character, the doctor dedicated to saving lives, but finding his ethics a tight fit in the face of war and of the woman he loves sparking with another man. And a Muslim at that.
The backdrop of the incipient Armenian Genocide, perpetrated by the Turks, provides the externa conflict, but is never trivialized. Instead it is an object lesson in how ineffectual governments often are in the face of obvious disaster, and a sharp reminder of the innocent lives caught in the middle, and ended, as a result. It makes THE OTTOMAN LIEUTENANT a fine distraction.