Late 1914 probably sounds like a fateful time for an American nurse to travel to Ottoman Turkey. Perhaps you are thinking of the Armenian Genocide, in which the Muslim Ottoman Empire systematically murdered 1.5 million ethnic Armenian Christians, but oh how wrong you are. It is significant because nurse Lillie Rowe is swept off her feet by the dashing Ishmail Veli. Genocide? There’s no genocide here. There’s just a spot of rough-housing that gets out of hand in Joseph Ruben’s historical white-wash, The Ottoman Lieutenant (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Rowe feels stifled by Mainline Philadelphia society, so after listening to an inspiring fundraising speech from Dr. Jude Gresham, she resolves to ferry an ambulance stocked with medical supplies to the American clinic in Anatolia. Unfortunately, her humanitarian aid is hijacked by Armenian bandits (those villains will do it every time), but at least she arrives safely with her nurse’s training, thanks to her escort, Lt. Veli.
Initially, the cynical clinic director, old Dr. Woodruff is less than impressed by her naïve do-gooder impulses, but Gresham is delighted to have her on staff. However, he is quickly frustrated by her flirtatious friendship with Veli and their habit of frequently crossing paths. She in turn is alarmed by his secret collaboration with the Armenian resistance—a clear violation of Starfleet’s Prime Directive.
Whether he intended to or not, Ruben (best-known for the Julia Roberts melodrama, Sleeping with the Enemy) hired onto a Turkish funded propaganda production that does its best to confuse, obscure, minimize, and ultimately deny the Armenian Genocide. Imagine a film set in 1930s Germany whose only Jewish characters were gangsters and cut-throats. Essentially, that is what we have in The Ottoman Lieutenant. Frankly, most of the bad stuff in the film is committed by Armenians. Granted, we witness noble Lt. Veli save a group of Armenian civilians from execution late in the third act, but that incident only seems to be there to suggest any atrocities were the unsanctioned work of low-ranking vengeance seekers.
When screenwriter Jeff Stockwell is not rewriting history, he gives us scenes of Veli and Rowe taking in cinematic vistas and cooing platitudes at each other, like “it’s like being inside God’s thoughts.” Michiel Huisman and Hera Hilmar have zero chemistry together, but his devil-my-care attitude wears better than her scoldy earnestness. Josh Hartnett is just embarrassing as the tightly wound Gresham. However, Sir Ben Kingsley lends the film some dignity and authority as the haunted Dr. Woodruff.