Though set against an intriguingly obscure historical backdrop, The Ottoman Lieutenant is an intensely familiar product, a studiously old-fashioned period melodrama in which the winds of history are subsumed into a predictable romantic narrative. The WWI-set story centers on Lillie Rowe (Hera Hilmar), an idealistic nurse who, after hearing Christian missionary Dr. Jude Gresham’s (Josh Hartnett) plea for aid, volunteers to personally bring a truck to his remote hospital in the far-Eastern reaches of the Ottoman Empire. After arriving in Constantinople, she’s escorted to Van by a dashing military officer, Lt. Ismail Veli (Michiel Huisman), who’s stationed in the small rural outpost. And no sooner has the war broken out than Lillie finds herself suspended between the good Christian doctor and the suave lieutenant whose Muslim faith would make their love forbidden.
The film’s creaky screenplay offers little depth and few surprises. Jude and Ismail are divided not only by their love for Lillie, but also by the war itself: Ismail is a proud Turkish officer and Jude is quietly supplying weapons to the Armenian resistance. And yet, these dull, thinly drawn characters barely hint at the lusty passions and broiling political divides that their interpersonal conflicts are meant to embody. From Lillie and Ismail’s first meeting, in which he gives her a soulful tour of the beautiful Rüstem Pasha Mosque, it’s clear which man she’ll eventually choose. Grand Anatolian vistas, intended as a sweeping backdrop for the epic historical romance, instead throw the cliché-ridden inertness of the drama into sharp relief.
More conspicuous than The Ottoman Lieutenant’s rote melodrama is the way that the film elides the concurrent genocide of ethnic Armenians by Ottoman forces, a historical reality which the Turkish government continues to deny to this day. In the film’s sole depiction of Turkish forces killing Armenian civilians, the violence isn’t only quickly quashed by Ismail, but portrayed as simply the misdeeds of a few bad apples in the Ottoman ranks.
While it never quite engages in outright genocide denial, the film, which includes several interludes narrated by Lillie providing highly selective historical context, is carefully constructed to spin what most historians agree was the systematic extermination of ethnic Armenians as nothing more than an unfortunate overstep in the legitimate battle against Russian-backed Armenian fighters who committed their own atrocities anyway. The Ottoman Lieutenant implies that everyone is guilty, and thus no one is. In so doing, it attempts to hide a genocide behind the fog of war.