Directed by: Philipp Stölzl
Starring: Tom Payne, Stellan Skarsgard, Olivier Martinez, Emma Rigby, Ben Kingsley
Dark Ages England was not a place to be ill. Against this backdrop the Physician tells the tale of Rob, an orphaned Peasant Boy in a nameless village who discovers a near mystical ability to sense and detect illness and impending death. On the night his mother dies of ‘Side Sickness’ he loses his home, his family and his hovel but he meets the itinerant ‘Barber’ (The closest thing to a G.P at the time. Mostly specialising in yanking teeth, setting broken bones, hacking off infected toes and swindling ignorant peasants) and he has a chance of a life more than just stealing food fighting the cold and dying before his teens. Rob however has dreams of something greater. Each case he treats, each person healed, mislead or failed makes him realise that he wishes to truly know all the mysteries of the human body and how to heal it. All the time working against the superstition and fear of the Church who decry the healers efforts as heresy and witchcraft.
Another chance meeting, this time with a Jewish Physician outside the walls of a city who heals the Barbers worsening blindness with surgical techniques unimaginable to young Rob, and Rob learns of Avicenna, the greatest physician in the world. Rob is compelled by his hunger for more knowledge of healing to head across the known world to Isfahan in Persia to study under him.
From the outset, this Dark Ages biopic is compelling viewing. From Rob’s squalid village in the cold and windswept moors through the brutal walls of the city keeps to the majesty of the Persian desert ‘Physician’ truly creates the vastness of the world back then and shows us what it was to be a human soul living in the middle of an endless mystery where life could be taken from you in ways no one understood and only God or Yahweh or Allah had all the answers.
The Cinematography is exquisite and does justice to a rich and mature script. The story of the struggle of early medicine against the fear and ignorance of the time would be fascinating enough perhaps, even if the characters weren’t so vital and interesting or the story wasn’t so gripping. But they are both, so this is an even more interesting film to watch. At 150 minutes this is a lengthy excursion, but never seems so. The story spans many years in each chapter and benefits hugely from the time taken. By the time the story reaches the turbulent Isfahan Robs precarious beginnings seem an age ago and rightly so, the pacing of the narrative is never tedious.
Rob Cole is ably brought to life by Tom Payne whose portrayal of a man driven across the world beyond the boundaries of holy law and past the brink of sanity by his need to understand how to heal and help. He is a young man who only seems fully alive when learning and healing, his drive to progress medicine consuming him, shining on and sometimes overshadowing the lives of all those around him.
Stellan Skarsgaard as Rob’s first mentor, the first of three men who guide, teach and alter his life, is wonderful as the garrulous drunken wandering healer. A man with more of heart than he will even admit to himself.
Sir Ben Kingsley, who is as usual filling the screen with presence is magical to watch as the Physician Ibn Sina. Dignified, diplomatic and also consumed with passion for his craft.
Olivier Martinez as the Shah is languorous and at once egomaniacal and yet strangely humble in a way as though resigned to fate with only reputation to leave behind him, and makes for twitchy viewing in the grand tradition of kings with absolute power.
Despite female characters being somewhat restricted in this movie like in the Dark Ages in real life, Emma Rigby plays a captivating performance as Rebecca, a promised bride who becomes Robs tragic love interest whilst facing life in a gilded cage, when all she would like to do is see the world, and Rob’s Mother played by Jodie Mcnee who has maybe 6 lines of dialogue yet provides the impetus for Rob to become the man he does.
All in all, a thoroughly satisfying watch and pleasurable with it, in fact I might add one of the most cross faith conciliatory films I’ve seen, Robs friendship with Tuveh and Mirdin, fellow students at the University and a Muslim and Jew respectively, is neither clichéd or saccharine. Indeed the comradeship against a backdrop of religious intolerance is touching and heartwarming. I highly recommend this Movie for lazy weekend afternoon viewing.
8 out of 10 (Sulaco)