‘The Ottoman Lieutenant’ is a small epic which tries hard

Ottoman Lieutenant

BY ROGER THOMAS

     I have probably written this before: I love historical epics. By the time I was twelve I had probably seen “Gone with the Wind” ten times. More recently, after I became an adult I continued to love big films that told sometimes stories based on facts and other times fictional stories with a background of history: “The Deer Hunter,” “Gandhi,” “Out of Arica,” “The Last Emperor,” “Dances with Wolves,” “Schindler’s List,” just to name a few. All of these films won “Best Picture” from the Academy and these films are just among the years 1978 to 93.

     “The Ottoman Lieutenant” strives to be one of those type of films. For the background setting, there is World War I. One of the greatest strengths of the film are the moments when the main female character, Lillie played by Hera Hilmar, shares events of the war with the audience. Footage, real or perhaps recreated for the film, offers moments which are quite affective. Those history lessons were my favorite part of the film.

     The story focuses on four main characters. There is Lillie who trained as a nurse and chooses to travel to the Ottoman Empire to serve at an American hospital. Jude, played by Josh Hartnett, is a doctor who serves at that hospital. When he speaks at Lillie’s church, she is inspired to go halfway around the world to make a difference. Once Lillie gets off the ship in Turkey, she encounters a soldier named Ismail. Ismail, the title character, is played by Michiel Huisman. Finally, Ben Kingsley plays a crotchety old doctor at the hospital who thinks Lillie should go home. This quartet of actors give fine enough performances, though there is little that stands out among any of the characters.

     And so, therefore is the problem. There is plenty of epic shots of land. Beautiful scenery and great cinematography abound. There are some sweet moments. A few frightening ones especially in times of battle. There are an occasional moment of humor, especially when Lillie is arguing for her way, but overall the film lacked passion.

     As  you might have guessed, Lillie ends up trying to decide between the doctor who almost literally talked her into going to a foreign land and the man who is in his homeland attempting to serve the greater good of his people. In films like this, where there is a choice, the audience tends to lean one way. If you asked the people around you when the film ends, they usually agree on what should happened. I did not ask anyone when the film ended. I was alone and was not sure those around me would welcome my inquiry. However, I am confidant that I could have predicted what they would have said. There opinion would be the same as mine, except I never felt fully committed to any possible climax  or ending. 

     As the film prodded on, I kept thinking of the great epics, films like I listed above. While watching those films, one knows what one wants to happen. And in some cases when it did not happen, it was all the more powerful. This film left me sighing. Not because I did not get what I wanted, but rather because I never cared as much as I thought I should.

     I looked up the screenwriter of the film, Jeff Stockwell. He wrote the screenplays for a couple of other films I have seen. The first is “Bridge to Terabithia” which I watched many times with my children as they grew up. Stockwell also wrote “The Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys.” That’s a quirky little film that has some powerful moments and great insight. Either of those films, both of which are about young teens, have more passion and more feeling than anything I saw on “The Ottoman Lieutenant.” 

Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.

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