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The Ottoman Lieutenant

by on March 8, 2017
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“The Ottoman Lieutenant” has the look and feel of a literary adaptation, something in the Merchant/Ivory tradition of “A Room with a View,” if it was given a more overtly soap-opera tone. But it’s an original screenplay by Jeff Stockwell that contains familiar notes from other historical romance/dramas.

The best thing about it is newcomer Hera Hilmar as Lillie, an independent-minded young woman in 1914 Philadelphia. The daughter of a well-to-do family, she’s an old maid of 23 who’s chosen to work as a nurse rather than get married and push out a passel of kids. Then she is introduced to a dashing doctor, Jude (Josh Hartnett), who helps run a missionary hospital on the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey), who is on a fundraising tour in the States.

Using her inheritance and over the objections of tut-tutting parents, Lillie resolves to send a truck that belonged to her late brother along with a shipment of medical supplies. Of course, she needs to go along herself to ensure its safe delivery … as well as satisfy her craving for adventure in an exotic land that is on the cusp of war.

Hilmar has a wide, strong face and an obstinate chin, and projects the aura of a proto-feminist whose worst possible outcome in life is doing exactly what is expected of her. She’s been in a few small films and TV shows, but has a bunch of films in various states of production, which I’ll be looking forward to.

Director Joseph Ruben has an eclectic resume that includes everything from sci-fi thrillers like “Dreamscape” to dumb action films (“Money Train”) and psychological thrillers (“Sleeping with the Enemy”). He lets his camera roam over the Turkish landscape, which segues from harsh deserts and mountains to sweeping fields and lake islands. (Most of the indoor stuff was shot in the Czech Republic.)

The title concerns Ismail, a stalwart Ottoman officer played by Michiel Huisman, a Dutch actor best known for playing the smirking mercenary Daario on “Game of Thrones.” Ismail comes from a long line of military heroes and feels the need to live up to those expectations, while having more modernistic sentiments about things like a Muslim man dallying with a Christian American woman.

He helps escort Lillie through the desert on the way to the mission, where they encounter Christian bandits (Affif Ben Badra plays their leader) in a sequence that has a very “Lawrence of Arabia”-lite feel to it. They exchange glances and, later, more intimate things.

Of course, Dr. Jude isn’t terribly thrilled about their romance, having designs upon Lillie for himself. Hartnett plays the doctor as a basically decent guy who projects himself as a progressive Christian, but has some very old-fashioned ideas about gender, religion and nationality.

Ben Kingsley rounds out the cast as Dr. Garrett Woodruff, the founder of the mission who is wallowing in misery because of a personal tragedy, about which we’ll soon learn more (but can surely guess). He takes out his anger on this around him, and initially Lillie becomes a main target.

Meanwhile, World War I is revving up and the Russians could be arriving any day now. More wounded show up in the hospital, and there’s deadly tension between the local Christians and Muslims. It’s choose-up-sides time, including for Lillie and her two beaus.

(I should mention the film has an “R” rating for “war violence” from the MPAA, but barely should have merited a PG-13. You can literally see worse stuff on broadcast television.)

I liked a lot of things about “The Ottoman Lieutenant,” especially Hilmar, without being quite swept up in the experience as a whole. It’s a very old-fashioned story without a lot of surprises. You can almost picture the cheap romance novel version: “She was caught between two worlds — and two lovers!”

I guess that counts as literature.

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