The Physician is the definition of cinematic style over substance. Hidden behind the beautiful vistas and extraordinarily detailed sets is a story so mediocre and lacking in interest that it makes you wonder why it was ever made at all.
Following the death of his mother, young boy Rob joins a Barber (Stellan Skarsgard), a kind of medieval medicine man, on his travels. Several years later, confused by a gift that allows him to sense when someone is about to die and interested in learning the true art of healing, Rob (Tom Payne) sets off to Persia to study under the legendary Ibn Sina (Ben Kingsley). Gaining access to Muslim lands by pretending to be a Jew (which involves a little homemade circumcision), Rob hones his skills battling an outbreak of the bubonic plague in the shadow of political upheaval that may eventually lead to war.
Based on Noah Gordon’s European best seller, Phillip Stolzl’s film struggles throughout with a central premise that in itself just isn’t that exciting. The story of a young man learning about healing, interwoven with numerous other narrative strands, may provide enough sustenance for an epic period novel, but when stripped down that central story feels isolated and hollow. The early part of the film suffers in particular as Rob’s story jumps around from plot point to plot point, compounded by poor editing that gives the whole thing a feeling of being no more than a hastily constructed highlights package. Performances are either hammy (Olivier Martinez as the tyrannical Shah) or wearily phoned in (Kingsley’s dreary doctor), with some character arcs never being fulfilled, presumably with key scenes left on the cutting room floor. Only astonishing camera work from cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski offers any interest, but this sadly remains purely on the surface.
The lack of any intrigue or urgency is symbolised by the film’s most “tense” scene. Never before has a third act hinged so much on an appendectomy as it does in The Physician, as Rob and his mentor struggle against the odds to perform what is portrayed as the first operation in history. While seemingly integral to the film’s themes of tolerance and acceptance, of balancing religion against emerging scientific knowledge, it feels desperately clichéd in offering justification for certain character’s actions and principles.
Suffering badly from grandiose over-ambition, The Physician never demonstrates the confidence to match its lofty intent. The astounding beauty of its design and cinematography is no match for the sheer number of its failings, and you get the sense the filmmakers hopes are to dazzle their audience with superficial charms akin to a magician’s sleight of hand. Look closely and The Physician is shallow and dull, more cinematic anaesthetic than epic adventure.
Special Features: Making of
THE PHYSICIAN / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: PHILIPP STOLZL / SCREENPLAY: JAN BERGER / STARRING: TOM PAYNE, STELLAN SKARSGARD, OLIVIER MARTINEZ, EMMA RIGBY, BEN KINGSLEY / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW