“How pale and tedious this world would be without mystery”
Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Noah Gordon, 2013 film The Physician is a slight oddity in being a German big-budget movie that just happens to be in English. Directed by Philipp Stölzl (who also directed Madonna’s ‘American Pie’ video in amongst a varied career), it has the epic sweep of a properly big production and with stars such as Sir Ben Kingsley and Stellan Skarsgård at the helm, alongside the swooningly handsome lead Tom Payne, it is surprising that it didn’t get a wider release, only now making it onto DVD in the UK.
For it is a hugely fascinating story, following young Robert Cole (Payne) who, once orphaned in 11th century England, vows to study medicine, hoping to find the answers to the illness that took his mother and also to explain his ability to foresee death. First attached to a rough-around-the-edges travelling surgeon (Skarsgård), Rob’s aptitude for medicine soon becomes apparent and a chance meeting with a surgeon of advanced knowledge sends him onto Isfahan in Persia, where the great scholar Ibn Sina (Kingsley) runs the most advanced medical school in the world.
The gulf between medical knowledge in Dark Ages England and the more enlightened Islamic Golden Age was huge and if there’s something a little anachronistically modern about Rob’s determination to challenge the status quo, Payne’s hugely appealing performance carries the weight of the storytelling well, even during the script’s more portentous pseudo-poetic moments. Disguising himself as a Jew (right down to the tip of, well, you know…) as Christians are forbidden in Isfahan, Rob’s tale is further complicated by falling in love with Rebecca (Emma Rigby) who is already attached to a major figure in the Jewish community there.
The love story is well done but for me emerged as the least interesting narrative strand. I was much more grabbed by Rob’s intellectual journey, learning emotional intelligence as well as medical from Ibn Sina – Kingsley is inimitably excellent in the role – and as plague hits the city, advancing understanding about the spread of diseases too (more interesting than it sounds, honest!). A little dramatic license has been made with regards to historical accuracy but the intent of the story remains honourable and more importantly, interesting.
At well over two hours, Stölzl allows The Physician real room to breathe and so it never feels rushed, instead luxuriating in its unhurried elegance. Hagen Bogdanski’s cinematography captured the vastly different worlds of the film beautifully well, the desert sequences are particularly well done, Ingo Frenzel’s insistent soundtrack nails the epic mood. And Jodie McNee’s compassionate mother, Makram J Khoury’s intolerant imam and Olivier Martinez’s handsome Shah all stand out in the supporting cast, making this a film well worth investigating as the nights draw in.