The Ottoman Lieutenant is everything a period romance should be: sweeping, transporting, risky, and immersive. Romance filters through to the film’s core, from story and character, to landscape, cinematography, and themes. It is a romance centered in feeling rather than show, which is apparent in its realistic love triangle devoid of melodrama. Joseph Ruben’s film also tells a story on the First World War’s Eastern front, a setting rare to cinema. In doing so, he captures the beauty and rich history of the region, tying in parallels of cultural strife with those of the film’s romantic struggles. However, The Ottoman Lieutenant doesn’t completely escape fault, suffering from bouts of inauthenticity in its historic presentation that collapse its potential for being truly great.
The story follows Lillie (Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar), a young and idealistic nurse hoping to make a difference at the outbreak of the war. Disillusioned by the classist form of health care at home in America, Lillie sets off on her own to follow a missionary doctor, Jude (Josh Hartnett), to his hospital in the Ottoman Empire. She is met with adversity right away from the Turkish soldiers, especially from Ismail (Michiel Huisman), a lieutenant tasked with transporting her cross-country to the mission. At first blinded by their differences, meek animosity quickly turns to friendship and eventually love amidst a cultural and political war intent on pulling them in opposite directions.
Ruben’s story is special because of the rich character/hero’s journey at the center of the film, rising above the romantic plot without overshadowing it. Lillie sets out on a path of self-discovery and moral righteousness. Bringing money and a supply truck overseas, the world of the Ottoman Empire is indifferent to her ideals. She is quickly forced to find her value outside of her western upbringing and mentality. This leads to a strong buildup of Lillie as an independent force within the mission and catapults her character arc. Ruben and screenwriter Jeff Stockwell succeed, however, in not creating another white savior character, but an unlikely hero enacting change and power in small ways, and stumbling from character flaws and in the pursuit of adapting to her cultural surroundings. Hilmar is fresh-faced and exuberant in the role, underlying Lillie’s initial ignorance with tenacity and vigor. In her breakout leading role, Hilmar already possesses the calm and sincerity in her performance needed to carry a film of epic scope.
On the romance side of the epic, Ruben’s story elegantly hits every mark. Hilmar’s co-star, Huisman, solidifies himself as an assured and captivating romantic lead. Huisman captures the demure sensibilities of the era and culture while maintaining an electric pull between his character Ismail and Lillie. Their romance moves in time with the historical plot as well, and tackles issues of religion, class, culture, and the politics waging war around them. Additionally, the love triangle with Jude, while a steady presence, doesn’t ever pull focus, but instead provides context for the cultural clash between the American missionaries and the invaded country as the strife between him and Ismail go beyond their mutual attraction to Lillie. Also being pulled within the film’s romantic gravity are the lovers’ surroundings. Ruben unites the east and west in a beautiful pastoral perspective of the Turkish countryside. The settings are gorgeous yet also possess regional clarity and specificity.
Ruben stays strong in romance and character, but his film loses steam in moments of Hollywood inauthenticity. Huisman (a Dutch actor), though a wonderful asset to the film, is clearly not Turkish, and Hilmar (though less problematic) is clearly not American. The argument could be made that The Ottoman Empire was a blending of European culture at this time; however, it just poses the question of how this story could have been told differently with actors more faithfully rooted in Eastern heritage. Furthermore, the presence of Ben Kingsley as the mission’s head doctor seems to be another misstep in grasping for ethnicity within the Hollywood casting boundaries. Ruben otherwise clearly shows a dedication to his story’s historical accuracy and an awareness for the severity of his subject in the underlying issues of the war, but a lack of completeness ultimately plagues the film’s effect. The historic plot is tended to throughout the film, playing a large role in Lillie’s journey and in her romance with Ismail, but it also ends abruptly at the movie’s end. While Lillie’s personal and romantic story lines are wrapped up, the history of The Ottomans and the war peters out and lacks the same catharsis that our fictional leads receive.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
If The Ottoman Lieutenant were just a romance and a coming to womanhood story, it would be nearly perfect. Ruben, however, takes on a lot more responsibility in telling a tragic story of war and genocide within The Ottoman Empire, and doesn’t do it complete justice. His film mirrors Lillie’s idealistic nature, and presents an exquisite backdrop to an epic love story, but one that doesn’t fully deliver in all its epic promises. Hilmar and Huisman are both magnetic in their roles and chemistry, though, and craft an honest, unique, and sympathetic romance for the saturated genre.