Up front and heads up, this war movie is a beautiful soap opera. Will you learn anything about the Turkish/Armenian conflict as part of World War I? Not likely. Will you have answers to the oft denied Armenian Genocide where some blame Turkey for the deaths of nearly two million, many butchered outright? Not in this movie. Will you better understand the centuries old conflict between Christian and Muslims, get any insight into the opposing theologies of those Abrahamic religions? Absolutely not.
Who cares? It’s a lush, evocative, music swelling, aerially photographed, proud-to-be-an-independent-woman-before-her-time-who-still-can-fall-for-a-genteel-doctor-in-white-or-swarthy-man-in-uniform movie. So you let the 100 minutes of film sweep across your eyeballs, asking no questions, seeking no answers, just enjoying the trip. It’s not unlike a visit to Epcot where it’s so much easier, safer, cleaner to tour the theme park than encounter the actual country and all those unwashed people.
This is why Hollywood makes movies in widescreen. Cinematography is by Daniel Aranyo. Lensed on location in the Czech Republic and Turkey, the film is breathtakingly, achingly beautiful. The script and acting, not so much. Note, the only credit I’ve identified so far is this man holding the camera, not those in front of the camera, not the composer of the insipid intrusive music, and certainly not the director behind the camera. For now, those names remain unspoken to protect their identities.
But the photography! Arayno and his assistants are masters of light. Sunrises, sunsets, silhouettes, candlelight, moonlight, Cappadocia rock formations, Mt. Ararat (of Noah’s ark fame), Anatolian ruins, seaside, lakeside, horses racing through fields of grain, trains chugging and smoking from one side of the frame to the other, lovers in their fishing net hideaway, Blue Mosque interiors, Istanbul viewed from the Bosphorus, the Hagia Sophia majestic and noble, all stunning, all epic, all eye popping. Istanbul has not been this beautiful since James Bond raced over the rooftops of the Grand Bazaar in Skyfall (2012). This is eye candy for the stay-at-home.
The film really can be reduced to a love triangle. Lillie (Hera Hilmar, Anna Karenina, Life in a Fishbowl), a cosseted Philadelphia high society young lady meets Dr. Jude Gresham (Josh Hartnett, Virgin Suicides, Pearl Harbor) at a missionary fundraising meeting and, rejecting her protective family’s control, decides to take her nursing skills to the medical practice he has set up in the Ottoman Empire, a dangerous location now in the throes of bloody conflict. She arrives with medical supplies in hand and soon encounters Ismail Valli (Michiel Huisman, Wild, Game of Thrones), soldier for the Ottoman Imperial Army, who is assigned as her escort from the seaport to the isolated, thief-infested mountain location of the clinic. She must also deal with the imperious founder and director of the hospital, Dr. Woodruff (Ben Kingsley) who declares this is no place for a woman, though it’s bustling with other females, just not young pale American ones. Not surprising that both the Christian doctor and the Muslim soldier find Lillie attractive, though there’s little in Hilmar’s characterization that would make these two men swoon so. Perhaps the total lack of any other white American women under 60 who don’t wear scarves or wimples in Istanbul is responsible for this romantic entanglement. But soon enough, while the rest of the world plunges into a World War, the nurse must decide whether it’s the doctor in white or the soldier in khaki who will win her heart. The war will have to take care of itself.
More forbidden love, this time not the black/white romance of recent films Loving or A United Kingdom, or the gay relationship in Moonlight, but instead the love that cannot speak its name in this film is between a Muslim and a Christian. However, it’s never clear just what makes him Muslim or her Christian. Sure, she has left her comfortable Philadelphia home to deliver medical supplies and become a nurse in a foreign missionary hospital. And for sure, he knows his way around a mosque.
But neither seem particularly focused or obsessed or much aware of his or her religion. Thus Christian and Muslim are convenient labels for their forbidden love, but empty and meaningless in terms of any real tension or conflict of ideologies and theologies. Though they do have some witty repartee about the differing Christian/Muslim interpretations of the Garden of Eden myth, I guess their whispered sweet nothings avoid any talk of divinity, damnation or salvation, crusades or martyrs or afterlives.
As to the history, for a moment, let’s remember that the Ottoman Empire was once a massive, transcontinental, multilingual political force controlling much of Southeast Europe, Central Europe, Western Asia, the Caucasus, North Africa. But from the Middle Ages on to the 18th and 19th centuries, it had gone into decline in size and influence. Germany had convinced (tricked?) it to support the Central Powers during World War I. The prevailing historical understanding today is that Turkey, now the center of the Ottoman government, struggling with this loss of power and contending with internal dissent, conducted major atrocities against Armenians and others beginning in 1915. But such things are not the purview of this movie. “Unspeakable violence” is the neat phrase used by Lt. Ismail Valli, the Ottoman Lieutenant himself, to gloss over the region’s notoriety for ethnic cleansing and barbaric lawlessness. No blame, no shame. He tells Lillie, the Ottoman lieutenant’s woman, further distancing himself from personal or national responsibility, “Freedom is an illusion. We all take the roles we’ve been given.”
Is this History? Is this Historical Romance? Is this Romance? Will Americans know what Ottoman means? Or wonder why an upholstered footstool needs a lieutenant? Is the world of padded furniture that militaristic and hierarchical that it needs a second in command?
As for romance, did I actually hear the line, “How do you say kiss in Turkish?”? It’s reminiscent of that silly dialogue from the old Tarzan movies as he swoons around Jane and says to her, “Kiss? What means this kiss?” Screenplay by Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Terabithia, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys).
Geoff Zanelli (The Last Samurai, Pearl Harbor, Shark Tale) wrote the score. It swells and sweeps and soars and hardly ever goes away.
Director is Joseph Rubin (Sleeping with the Enemy, The Forgotten, Money Train).
As anachronistic as it is, I’m reminded of the Sam Cooke lyrics “Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology, don’t know much about a science book, don’t know much about the French I took. But I do know that I love you, and I know that if you love me too, what a wonderful world this would be.” Likewise here in this film, don't know much about history or geopolitics or theology at all. The patriotic gore and horrific human cannon fodder of the war are tossed aside for love. We leave the movie feeling uplifted, sort of, the film’s final word ringing in our ears, “I still believe in a God that is good and just and that peace will return one day.”
We still wait.
The Ottoman Lieutenant
3.5 out of 5 stars
Directed by Joseph Rubin
Starring Hera Hilmar, Michiel Huisman, Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley