As a nine year old growing up in 11th Century London, Rob Cole (Adam Thomas Wright) felt the life force slip away from his mother as she died. Separated from his family, the maturing Rob (Tom Payne) becomes apprentice to a travelling Barber (Stellan Skarsgård). Barbers being among the few people with any medical knowledge during the Dark Ages. Eventually Rob's growing curiosity about medicine drives him to undertake a perilous journey to the city of Ispahan in Persia. There he hopes to study with the most renowned physician of the age: Ibn Sina (Ben Kingsley). To sidestep the ban on Christian students, Rob disguises himself as a Jew and perseveres through the tyranny of Shah Ala ad Daula (Olivier Martinez) and growing resistance to the medical school orchestrated by religious leaders, to unravel the secrets of fighting disease.
This intelligent, engrossing historical drama adapted from the bestseller by American novelist Noah Gordon was a significant box-office hit in its native Germany yet curiously unheralded elsewhere. Filmed in English with an international cast, The Physician presents a fascinating insight into the practice of medicine both in Europe and the Middle East in its early form the Eleventh century. The film also touches on the religious zealotry, political skulduggery and basic ignorance that stood in opposition to the progress of medical science. To its credit the film acknowledges significant contributions made by Christians, Jews and Muslims whilst also signposting instances where practitioners of all three faiths were guilty of intolerance, bigotry and sheer willful ignorance. In that sense The Physician proves as as much a plea for cooperation and understanding between faiths as it is a story about one man's search for knowledge.
Early on the film stumbles slightly with a broad and bawdy depiction of disease-ridden England that is a little too Monty Python-esque for comfort. However it gradually finds its feet and although overstated at times remains sincere, engaging contemplative and unflinching in its depiction of the harsh realities of life in the Dark Ages. Here the one taboo shared by all faiths is the dissection of human anatomy, which most equate with necromancy but which Rob comes to argue is the last frontier that could lead to the next great medical breakthrough. While Rob's seemingly paranormal ability to sense death is a semi-fantastical conceit at odds with the movie's surface reality there is an interesting metaphysical angle to the plot. Rob's encounter with a dying Zoroastrian enables him to see that the soul is eternal and thus move beyond the constrictive notion of the body as sacred.
Between them director Philip Stölzl and co-screenwriters Jan Berger, Simon Block and Christopher Müller deftly interweave the multiple strands of Gordon's sprawling story. Along with exploring the simmering racial, religious and political tensions inherent in the material The Physician also does a surprisingly solid job interweaving what lesser epics might render a superfluous star-crossed romantic sub-plot between Rob and Rebecca (Emma Rigby), a nice Jewish girl betrothed to a self-serving merchant. Well played by young leads Payne and Rigby the love story is genuinely moving and perhaps more importantly consistent with the movie's principal themes rather than tacked on for crowd-pleasing effect. Stölzl, a specialist in lavish German historical epics and action-thrillers, crafts handsome visuals on a suitably epic scale. Yet he wisely downplays swordplay and keeps the emphasis suitably on Rob's journey to becoming a physician, climaxing not with a battle but life-serving surgery (his first incision is shown creatively from inside the body). Stellan Skarsgård delivers a lively but still poignant turn as the ageing barber slowly going blind and Ben Kingsley is well cast as Rob's wise mentor, but the film rests on the shoulders of wide-eyed Tom Payne who performs ably. A beautiful ending nicely closes the arc bringing things back to the beginning.