Starring: Tom Payne, Stellan Skarsgård, Ben Kingsley, Emma Rigby
Running Time: 148 mins
With its solid casting, lavish settings and wide-ranging historical backdrop, you might be mistaken for thinking The Physician would hit the mark on all counts. However, while Stoelz’s feature works on some levels, it never quite becomes the sweeping epic it wants to be.
Based on Noah Gordon’s novel of the same name, The Physician already comes with a ready-made audience in Spain and Germany, due to the book’s popularity on the Continent. We follow the journey of newly orphaned Robert Cole (Tom Payne), a wide-eyed lad who finds himself swept away from the dirt and muck of early medieval England into the sultry exoticism of the Orient. It’s certainly lucky for Rob that his mother died in the opening ten minutes, otherwise he would have been stuck forever in a landscape akin to Monty Python’s The Holy Grail (but without the funny bits), rooting around in filth and making mud pies.
Rob has a gift you see, an uncanny ability to tell when someone’s time is up, and so he’s naturally drawn to a career in medicine (don’t worry—this supernatural element which sits strangely with the historical theme is never really explored). Of course, we all know what medicine was like in the Dark Ages—it’s all bloodletting, no anesthetic, and lots of screaming—resembling torture more than healing. There’s only so much Rob can discover under Barber’s (Stellan Skarsgård) tutelage, and eventually he seeks warmer and more learned climes in Persia, with esteemed philosopher and medic Ibn Sina (also known as Avicenna), played by Ben Kingsley.
The casting in The Physician is spot on, if a little safe. Skarsgård and Kingsley are exactly what you’d expect from Rob’s two mentors (one a bit rowdy and lusty, the other more refined and respected). Payne too, is instantly likeable as the boy from the uncivilized backwaters of England who becomes a shining light in the East. He’s not just good—he’s a modern man of medicine, fascinated by the inner workings of the body and keen to use autopsies to discover cures to disease (a big taboo at the time).
The problem with The Physician is it’s all rather predictable. There’s the obligatory forbidden romance between Rob and Rebecca (Emma Rigby), the sweeping score, and the exotic Orientalism of Persia. It’s also pretty epic in length; it comes in at nearly 150 minutes (and apparently there’s a longer TV movie edit of it doing the rounds as well).
This isn’t all to say The Physician doesn’t appeal or have its moments. It looks fantastic visually, and Payne is just the right mixture of laddish adventurer and sensitive pretty boy to appeal to most members of any audience. In fact, you may be surprised to find out The Physician is a German production—it’s so slick that it looks like a Hollywood feature.
In the end, The Physician just slips effortlessly along. It never really surprises you, but with its stunning locations and accomplished cast, it’s all about the spectacle—even if this is often a little empty at times.
The Physician is available on DVD and Blu-ray now.