A limp and lifeless historical melodrama that aspires to be the “Pearl Harbor” of the preamble to World War I and still falls well short of that ignoble goal, Joseph Ruben’s “The Ottoman Lieutenant” tries to snatch a love triangle from out beneath the Armenian Genocide but fails to get any of the angles right. Beginning in a Philadelphia hospital circa 1914 (Prague plays the city well), the film is tawdry from the very top, taking the same reckless approach to clichés that pre-war doctors took to general hygiene.
You can hear the trouble before you can see it, our wide-eyed heroine introducing herself via such startlingly trite voiceover that she’s a lost cause by the time she first appears on screen. “I thought I was going to change the world,” she says, “but of course it was the world that changed me.” Get comfortable, it’s going to be a bumpy night.
Her name is Lillie Rowe (Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar), and she’s a Jane Austen protagonist who’s stuck in an airport novel. A young proto-feminist nurse who’s defined by nothing more than her youthful skin and her progressive values, Lillie is horrified when her hospital rejects a dying black man on account of his race. Privileged but pissed off, Lillie is gifted a conduit for her anger when Jude Gresham (Josh Hartnett), an idealistic mission doctor, shows up to crowd-fund supplies for the treatment center he runs in distant Anatolia.
Eager to assert her value (and perhaps get touched by someone other than God), Lillie volunteers to escort the goods to Turkey herself. And who should she meet the very second she steps off the boat, but the hunkiest — and whitest — Ottoman soldier alive, Lieutenant Ismail Veli (“Game of Thrones” actor Michiel Huisman). That sort of ready-made romantic tension may have worked in “Only Angels Have Wings,” but Jeff Stockwell’s hokey dialogue exposes the script mechanics behind every interaction, and Hilmar’s flat delivery is an odd match for Huisman’s big screen bravado. Of course, few actors on the planet could deliver lines like the one that reluctantly escapes from Huisman’s mouth when her character walks into one of Turkey’s famous mosques: “It’s like being inside God’s thoughts.”
Things hardly pick up once Lillie arrives in the dangerous countryside of Anatolia and Ismail and Jude begin fighting for her affection. While the sweeping beauty of the location photography does a great deal to distract from the chintziness of the storytelling, “The Ottoman Lieutenant” is soon reduced to a mush of generic beats that fail to stoke interest in any of the film’s various conflicts.
Unconvincing medical scenes give way to unconvincing love scenes give way to unconvincing death scenes, and director Joseph Ruben (the veteran studio journeyman behind “Sleeping with the Enemy” and “The Stepfather”) only sparks to life during the handful of well-choreographed bandit raids and the like. At some point, Ben Kingsley pops by to pick up a paycheck, doing a few days’ work in the role of a local doctor with a tragic past and a firm belief that women don’t have the stomach to save lives. Brace for the righteous moment of triumph when Lillie doesn’t pass out at the sight of blood, and Dr. Ben Kingsley instantly abandons his lifelong misogyny once and for all.
It might seem a bit strange to use the Armenian Genocide as a backdrop for such insipid character arcs, but don’t worry, it’s a lot worse than it sounds. Not only does the film completely whitewash both sides of the percolating extermination, it also mutes all of the relevant cultures to the point where it’s hard to understand who’s fighting whom, or why the love between Ellie and Ismail is supposedly so forbidden (she’s not a Muslim, but Josh Hartnett comes across as a more significant obstacle than any religious precepts).
Most exasperating of all is that Lillie, whose personal growth is prioritized over the wellbeing of an entire indigenous people, is barely even a character. If you’re going to make a movie about how a Middle Eastern atrocity helped a white twentysomething find her inner strength — and please don’t — at least have the decency to make that white twentysomething more than an empty vessel for men to fawn over. Ellie might have traveled halfway around the world to prove that all people deserve equal care, but the dreadfully dull “The Ottoman Lieutenant” doesn’t quite see things the same way.
“The Ottoman Lieutenant” opens in theaters on Friday, March 10.