Genre: Adventure, Drama, History
Directed by: Philipp Stoelzl
Starring: Tom Payne, Ben Kingsley, Stellan Skarsgård, Olivier Martinez, Emma Rigby
You might be familiar with Noah Gordon’s best-selling historical novel The Physician, but you’d be forgiven for not having heard of Philipp Stoelzl’s movie adaptation of the same name. What starts as something akin to a mediocre TV drama, develops into an unexpectedly engaging story about tradition, religion, truth and knowledge.
The story begins in 11th century England, where a travelling Barber (Stellan Skarsgård) finds himself in possession of an orphaned child called Rob. The young boy and gruff nomad form an unlikely companionship and when the Barber eventually loses his sight, an adult Rob (played by an incredibly likeable Tom Payne) becomes his apprentice. A chance encounter with a Jewish healer spurs Rob to travel to Isaphan in Persia where he intends to train under the guidance of legendary physician Ibn Sina (Ben Kingsley).
Rob’s journey to Persia is tough; he passes himself off as a Jew and survives a vicious sand storm in the desert, only to arrive at Ibn Sina’s school and be turned away at the door. That is until the famous healer takes Rob under his wing and admits him as a student. Rob thrives under Ibn Sina’s guidance and commits himself to a life of curing the sick, soothing the dying and seeking knowledge others might prefer to remain ignorant of. But Persia is a land of spiritual unrest, and it’s not long before Rob finds himself at the centre of a brutal war.The Physician is a film of two parts. The early scenes in England are largely uninteresting, achieving little more than establishing the historical timeline and giving a modicum of backstory. Stellan Skarsgård does his best with a clichéd ‘quirky crank’ role, but it’s an unrewarding part that’s forgotten about the moment his apprentice leaves for dustier climes. When the film relocates to Persia, it becomes something worth watching.
Tom Payne and Ben Kingsley have a better mentor/apprentice dynamic than Payne and Skarsgård were able to develop. Payne’s Rob is bright eyed and enthusiastic; he yearns for knowledge, not for personal gain but to enhance and prolong the lives of others. Kingsley’s Ibn Sina shares this mission, a wise and witty healer who doesn’t bat an eyelid when he has to mend the haughty King’s sprained wrist with a decapitated head inches from his feet. Some of the characters and their motives aren’t always afforded enough time to make them matter – Emma Rigby’s Rebecca and Olivier Martinez’s Shah feel particularly underdeveloped – but there’s enough going on elsewhere to ensure the film doesn’t suffer as a result of it. In fact, the script pacts an awful lot in to it’s 148 minute running time. Artistic license means that history buffs might be disappointed in the factually inaccurate portrayal of Persia and Ibn Sina, but this is not a biopic, and it shouldn’t be treated as one.
Visually The Physician is impressive. It has the feel of a sweeping classic; shots of stark deserts and an English stranger in a foreign land evoke images of epic dramas from bygone years. This is not an empty Hollywood blockbuster – it has meaning and it has a message that advocates the freedom to seek knowledge and understanding regardless of religion and belief. With so many modern movies devoid of any kind of message at all, there’s something quite uplifting and enchanting about Stoelzl’s adventurous adaptation, however authentic it may or may not be.
The Physician is released on DVD on Monday 5 October.