The PBS series Mercy Street combines romantic drama with the political and ethical struggle faced by doctors working a Union hospital in a Confederate state during the Civil War. Idealism fights realism while love ruminates under the surface. The Ottoman Lieutenant involves the same sort of egalitarian wartime hospital setting, though its focus is on the most banal aspect of that background: the romance.
The film follows a headstrong, progressive, equal-opportunity wannabe savior as she heads to the Ottoman Empire on the cusp of the first World War to provide healthcare for its needy civilians. Icelandic Hera Hilmar’s focused, deliberate American accent as nurse Lillie Rowe places each word in a carefully prepared sequence, like a child acting in a well-recited Thanksgiving play, while the actors playing her parents, coworkers and love interests speak in a naturalistic, rolling cadence that makes her vocal difference all the more distracting. Hilmar’s entirely without charisma, less a blank slate of a protagonist than an example of a complete miscasting. She can’t seem to get her face to look the way she wants it to look, watching arguments between her triangle of love interests with a bemused smirk when her dialogue is written with earnest concern.
The first of her would-be wooers is the doctor, Jude (Josh Hartnett), who recruits the heiress to his cause. Hartnett is solid as a bookish doctor dedicated to being a hero like only a foreign Christian could. He’s also, we find, hiding guns for the Christian Armenians, which almost causes drama until the script allows it to fizzle like so much poorly poured black powder.
Lillie meets her second potential paramour, an Ottoman military official named Ismail (Michiel Huisman), immediately upon her arrival. He spots her as the tourist she is, sweeping her off feet in danger of a price-gouged shoeshine from a predatory local and whisking her to a mosque. When she finds out seconds later, in a different scene, that she needs a military escort for herself and her supplies to travel to the hospital at which she aims to volunteer, well, she only knows the one hunky lieutenant.
Huisman is as tall, dark and handsome as any love interest in any pre-Fifty Shades paperback, one whose standoffishness couples with his ultimate sweetness to make him irresistible to studios’ ideas of female audiences. When he and Lillie ride off on a commandeered horse after the supplies are driven off a cliff by some Armenian brigands, the long landscape shots of the two and their steed could’ve been ripped from any semi-steamy romance on the back shelf of a bookstore.
Jeff Stockwell’s (writing Ava Duvernay’s upcoming A Wrinkle in Time) script is just as hokey and terribly corny for all its historical tumult. The Turkish production funds behind the film all but guarantee that any perspective on the war has a glazed-eyed sheen and any candid mention of the Armenian Genocide never made it past the script’s first draft. Bare writing culls all creativity or nuance, trimmed back to the bleeding cuticle of basic character beats. Lillie, in an early dinner scene, discusses her age, her charitable job history and a few other relevant plot instigations before an anti-climactic dissolve to her ocean voyage away from her home of Philadelphia. Dialogue consists of platitudes (“I thought I was going to change the world, but of course it was the world that changed me”) and clunky simplification of complex facts (“I’m a Muslim and you’re a Christian. We share so little.”).
Lillie and Ismail arrive at Jude’s hospital deep in the Ottoman Empire where Ben Kingsley’s ether-addled doctor explains that “this is no place for a woman.” Looking around the film, this comment seems quite literal, except for old women scuttling about as scenery or female children dying of typhus. No wonder the film focuses on such an otherwise boring person.
When ignoring the main plot, the film has compelling moments. Obvious care went into composition and costume creation, but there’s not a lot of substance behind the professional flash. Beautifully shot in lamplit town halls, crowded Istanbul marketplaces and dirtied hospitals, The Ottoman Lieutenant takes visual advantage of its setting, though its color correction veers from cool teal cocktail parties to warm yellow stables and wheaty fields. Sometimes the hues distractingly shift mid-scene, as if you’re watching a film through old 3-D glasses while alternating between colored lenses. Director Joseph Ruben and cinematographer Daniel Aranyó shoot silent horses moving in a straight line well—the best part of a film whose ethnic, gender and religious politics are handled with as much complexity as that equine queue.
As the war progresses (explained through bland and boring black-and-white historical footage accompanied by droning voiceover) and Lillie continues helping at the hospital, she keeps running into Ismail. He teaches her a few Turkish words and she’s smitten, their relationship consummated by Ismail’s passion and her stoic acceptance of his gasping makeouts. Much is initially made of their religious difference, but it disappears after a fight between the religiously- and romantically-conflicted men in Lillie’s life. This is a romance film that shoots a fistfight with more interest than its couple’s first kiss, like the director finally struggled free of his restraining script.
An on-the-nose montage with a newspaper update on the war that all but spins at the screen like a Looney Tunes parody and an unbearably generic score by Geoff Zanelli—which promotes something that sounds like a minor string movement from Titanic to its main theme, playing at every opportunity to remind you of the gravity that a non-present-day romance obviously necessitates—take a competently crafted film and douse any potentially unique filmmaking in triteness. A milquetoast damnation of war and pain without delving into anything as deviously thought-provoking as the war’s causes, The Ottoman Lieutenant is a war romance wherein the romance isn’t made more complex by the war, nor is the war made more complex by the romance.
Director: Joseph Ruben
Writer: Jeff Stockwell
Starring: Michiel Huisman, Hera Hilmar, Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley
Release Date: March 10, 2017