In Philipp Stölzl’s The Physician we follow the story of Rob Cole (Tom Payne), a young Christian man from England who, haunted by the death of his mother, embarks on a mission to discover the most advanced healing techniques of the 11th century. His journey takes him from studying as a simple barber’s apprentice in an English travelling caravan, all the way to Ispahan in Persia, working under one of the greatest minds of the time, Ibn Sina (Ben Kingsley). In his travels east Cole risks his very life for his cause, masquerading as a Jew in an empire where Christians are banished.
The Physician is largely effective as a historic epic, primarily thanks to the impressive visuals on display. There are sweeping vistas and immersive historic sets throughout, and the locations have their own distinct feel and give a great sense of the differences in cultures, climates and beliefs. The English scenes are largely drab and grey, set in towns and forests where mud and wooden huts abound. Despite this England is shown to have its own beauty, especially in the segments where Rob and his master the barber (Stellan Skarsgård) travel between towns, where we are presented with vast, rolling mountain ranges and luxuriously green lands stretching out into the distance. By contrast, Persia is brighter, with sand and sun exuding from almost every shot. The architecture is much more elaborate and advanced and the desert stretches imposingly into the distance. This visual contrast aids greatly in presenting the difference between eastern and western cultures during a time of discovery, with confused and strained cultural and religious beliefs.
It is the battle between science and religion that takes centre stage in The Physician. The film is set during the Islamic Golden Age, a period of great cultural, economic and intellectual advancement and achievement. This proves an extremely interesting area of study, and one very rarely captured in film. However, whilst intriguing it is also here where the film falls down somewhat. There are numerous inaccuracies, notably the demise of Ibn Sina, who was a real world intellectual of the time. It seems somewhat unnecessary and potentially even disrespectful to alter history in such a way as to almost completely rewrite the real life story of a man, city and civilisation.
Furthermore, the film could prove insulting to those with a religious, and especially Islamic, background. In the argument between science and religion, the latter is almost entirely depicted preventing and obstructing human progress. Whilst it may be argued that this was often the case during this period, especially in Europe, the film owes it to itself and its audience to explore the situation a little more broadly. During this time the Arabic caliphates of the world were some of the most advanced civilizations around, despite their culture being largely guided by Islamic beliefs, something The Physician seems wilfully unaware of.
Historical inaccuracies and lopsided debate aren’t the film’s only flaws. Firstly, in what is otherwise set up as a realistic (albeit inaccurate) world, Cole has the ability to predict when people are going to die. This magical element of the film sticks out greatly when there is no mention of supernatural ability of any kind otherwise in the film. Then there’s the background love story between Cole and Rebecca (Emma Rigby), which serves no purpose in advancing the plot. The viewer is given no real reason to feel invested in whether things work out romantically between the two characters and the ‘obstacle’ that is present is resolved very nonchalantly and off-screen. Both of these feel as though they were added in at the last moment in an attempt to broaden the film’s appeal by including romantic and mystical elements.
The Physician is a solid enough film, with all actors providing decent performances, although nothing that will stick in the mind once the credits stop rolling. Visually the film is very impressive and gives a great sense of time and place, and the fundamental premise is interesting, but the film is let down by the script’s inaccuracies. Artistic license will only allow a film to get away with so much and The Physician somewhat oversteps that mark.
Words by Jon Heywood