The Physician is a film based on the successful novel from Noah Gordon, where the book was such a hit in Germany that it was one of their biggest productions of recent years. Made with an international cast, in English and with some heavyweights to star in the poster, it has fantastic production values although their budget is nowhere near a Hollywood production for epic films (the film’s budget is around US$ 36m). However, it does compensate with a lot of care and passion for their work.
The Physician starts in the 11th century, more precisely in a Saxon London, still engulfed in the Dark Ages. The knowledge from the old Roman Empire is gone and the only reminiscence of medical knowledge is represented by itinerant barbers, living from creating miraculous elixirs and performing rudimentary surgeries while escaping the accusations of witchcraft. From this world, comes Rob Cole (Payne), a young man with the extraordinary gift of sensing when people are near death. His gift will lead him to accompany one barber (Skarsgård) in order to learn his craft.
His curiosity and pursuit to understand more of human condition is constantly in conflict with his loyalty to the barber, until a moment where his knowledge is not sufficient and he gets in contact with Jewish settlers that can perform cataract surgeries. His desire to learn new techniques will eventually take Cole on a journey that will lead him to the city of Isfahan, ancient Persia, where the famous Ibn Sina (Kingsley) teaches at Madrasa University, where medicine studies are far more advanced and students even learn the Greek philosophers.
Disguised as a Jew, Cole is accepted into Madrasa and becomes a pupil of Ibn Sina, where he will become part of the Jewish community and get involved with Rebecca (Rigby), defeat epidemics, and get involved in a war between the Abbasid rulers led by the tyrannical Shah Ala ad-Daula and the fundamentalist Seljuk leading to a society that becomes more distrustful of their own community.
The story follows the classic hero’s journey structure and it does not try to deviate from that formula, considering the source material. The film is more concise narrative than the series of books and focusing in Cole’s story. That makes a more focused script and it flows a lot better and the film benefits from those choices. There is also a good balance between England and Persia, so both narratives are tied cohesively.
It is quite refreshing to see a medieval film that it is not focused in political and/or religious wars. The main topic here is about a young man in search of knowledge, a precursor to the scientists. Cole is not interested in religion or war and that is reflected throughout the film and the theme of tolerance is abundant. War will only be brought to the film when that balance is disrupted. Considering that the issues being covered in this film are still relevant to this day, a message of tolerance and collaboration should feel welcome.
Being a historical drama the film has strong points and also fails when it comes to some parts of the story. The historical research is solid, particularly with their depiction of Ibn Sina, which has been one of authors of medical encyclopedias that were still used in universities until the 17th century. As usual, some historical liberties are taken but nothing that detracts from the overall experience, apart from a bubonic epidemic that appears to be the students’ trial by fire, even though the first signs of the disease wouldn’t appear for the next 200 years.
But this is only for the more historical purists. The story still works and credit must be given to the cast. Payne brings life to Rob Cole and brings his curiosity and naivety adding a lot of charisma to the character. Cole makes some very challenging decisions during the film and he is very convincing as a young man who would do anything to satiate his thirst for knowledge. Sir Ben Kingsley is what you would expect from his role as a mentor and it is the same as Skarsgård, they are just comfortable with their roles.
One solid performance comes from Oliver Martinez, he is great as the Shah with a very controlled but menacing performance, you don’t really know what to expect when he appears. It would be great to see him with more screen time but given the right balance of the story, it is understandable.
In terms of visuals, the film is satisfyingly effective. Interiors are well detailed and locations are well picked both in Germany and Morocco to portrait England and Persia respectively. The use of CGI is also well placed with the panoramic shots depicting the medieval cities. Visual effects are also quite well done, particularly the use of the Phantom Camera to depict Cole’s gift using super slow motion.
The Physician is a film treated with a lot of care and it shows a very solid production. The narrative is tight, straight to the point and it doesn’t suffer from time pacing, despite being over 2 hours long. It is not going to redefine epic dramas but adds a lot to the genre, just like The Name of the Rose or The Hour of the Pig once did. It is a good experience, especially now in home entertainment release. If you are interested in epic drama, or just want to see a good story on your TV for the evening, this is the film for you.
Review by Fabiano Fonseca
The Physician is out now on DVD.