Let's say you had to make up a list of historical moments that might serve as grand backdrops for sweeping, old-fashioned, Hollywood-style romantic dramas. How high would you rank the Armenian Genocide? How high would you rank any genocide? As Armenian refugees flee slaughter at the hands of the Ottoman Imperial Army in Joseph Ruben's handsomely mounted The Ottoman Lieutenant, you might wonder why the camera doesn't follow them rather than continue its dogged documentation of the American heroine's struggles with what my mother calls "kissing problems."
Love, battles, an abscess that, once lanced, spews like a mustard packet stomped on a sidewalk -- this movie's got everything except gravity or a sense of emotional coherence. Applaud the vistas as Hera Hilmar 's restless American nurse Lillie caravans across the Anatolian steppe just before the first World War, courageously bringing medical supplies to a hospital staffed by a hunky American doctor (Josh Hartnett). Let your heart leap as she and Ismail (Michiel Huisman), that doctor's rival for her affections, thunder on their horses across fields near Mount Ararat. Cower as the score all-caps blares that WHAT YOU'RE BEHOLDING IS WONDROUS.
The Ottoman Lieutenant is all parts of a movie that don't fit together. Some are lovely, especially the Eastern European location shooting, and a few story elements prove heartening in our own tumultuous times. The romance centers on a Christian woman and a Muslim man. But the actors have no room to make people out of their names and costumes. Lillie and Ismail love each other because the light perfectly honeys the frame that they share, because what else are the filmmakers going to show us -- the systematic murder of Armenians?