Noah Gordon’s 1986 novel The Physician tells the story of an 11th-Century English boy’s journey to Persia to study medicine under the legendary scholar Ibn Sina. The US author’s book was never a huge seller stateside, but it became a beloved international hit across 32 countries; while Gordon remains largely unknown in his homeland, legions of fans have carried the torch for The Physician (and its sequels) throughout Europe and elsewhere.
It’s fitting, then, that a big-budget, star-studded adaptation of The Physician has been financed in Germany (but shot in English) rather than Hollywood. The film version, directed by Philipp Stölzl (who made the exciting Nazi mountain climbing flick North Face) from a script by Jan Berger (who wrote the vampire drama We Are the Night), looks great and compacts a lot into its 150-minute running time, but also falls victim to one too many storytelling clichés along the way.
The Physician focuses on Rob Cole, a young English boy who painfully watches his mother die in the film’s opening scene as neighbors and the local priest stand by helplessly. While Rob’s mother merely has appendicitis, medical progress is in its infancy and hospitals have yet to come into widespread existence; the tragic event inspires Rob to study medicine.
In medieval Europe, however, that’s no easy task. Medicine was not practiced by doctors but by travelling barbers, who not only sold tonics of questionable veracity but also performed surgical operations. A desperate Rob, now orphaned and facing an uncertain future, hooks up with a reluctant barber (played by Stellan Skarsgård) who raises him in this dubious field.
Of course, life as a barber isn’t enough for Rob (now played by Tom Payne), who, despite his training, still lacks the knowledge to really help people. Rob also has a gift: he can magically “sense” when someone is about to die. The filmmakers have cut a lot out of Gordon’s novel, and they should have also axed this supernatural angle, which feels out of place in the film version.
When Rob encounters a community of local Jews, he realizes that their medical prowess far exceeds his own; he asks where they learned to practice medicine, and they tell him of the great Ibn Sina in Persia. Rob knows what he has to do, but there’s one problem: as a Christian, he would never be able to travel to the Muslim-ruled territory and get back alive.
The Physician is at its strongest when focusing on the central storyline: a thoroughly compelling account of how Rob managed to disguise himself as a Jew (there’s even a squirm-inducing self-circumcision scene), and study under the great Ibn Sina (Ben Kingsley, who lights up the screen whenever he’s around). Taking Sina’s teachings even further, Rob puts himself in even more jeopardy when he breaks taboo and examines dead bodies to learn more.
Surrounding this fascinating central premise is a lot of underwritten material that feels like it has been cobbled together from screenwriting 101: Cole and Ibn Sina get wrapped up in politics as the local Shah (Olivier Martinez) attempts to head off a religious revolt. And, of course, there’s a love triangle, which feels like another thoughtlessly Hollywood-ized addition to Gordon’s original novel, as Rob and Rebecca (Emma Rigby) strike up a relationship during their perilous journey to Persia.
While these story elements detract enough from The Physician to offset the genuinely appealing premise – and turn the 150-minute film into a tough sit (we’ve seen so many of these storytelling beats before) – much of the film is a first-rate production, with striking production design (the central city of Isfahan is gorgeously re-created) and polished cinematography by Hagen Bogdanski (The Lives of Others).
Despite the narrative flaws, The Physician is a handsomely mounted period epic that represents a nice change-of-pace from the more action-oriented Hollywood films of the same type. If only they managed to avoid all of the scriptwriting clichés, too; the film is set to become a two-part miniseries on German TV later this year, which may offer a more fluid experience.