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New Release Review - THE PHYSICIAN (DVD)

A surgeon's apprentice disguises himself as Jewish in order to study at a Persian college that doesn't admit Christians.


Review by Benjamin Poole (@filmclubchs)

Directed by: Philipp Stolzl

Starring: Tom Payne, Stellan Skarsgard, Olivier Martinez, Ben Kingsley, Emma Rigby




"The Physician is a film proud with ambition and good intentions. And while it may stumble occasionally, for the most part it is skilful in executing its many thrills and spills. Within its warm heart, there are elements of true grandeur."




The Physician, Philipp Stölzl’s 11th Century set historical drama which concerns (deep breath) a surgeon's apprentice disguising himself as Jewish in order to study at a Persian college that does not admit Christians, must have been a nightmare to market (although a huge success in mainland Europe in 2013, this German production is only seeing a British release now). Based upon the novel by Noah Gordon, the film’s epic sweep takes in several countries, plays fast and loose with historical details, and is predicated upon a sort-of super power with which the protagonist is cursed. Where would you begin? Well, the film chooses to open its narrative in the dark ages; dark by era, dark by nature, where young Rob (eventually a handsome Tom Payne) ekes it out with his mother and various other siblings in grimy, soot streaked poverty. One night, his mother feverishly ill, Rob realises an ability to discern when people are close to death. Sadly, Rob has the ability to perceive such maladies, but not the means with which to heal them: his poor old mum perishes, which sets Rob upon the path towards fulfilling the movie’s title.
The orphaned Rob hooks up with The Barber (Stellan Skarsgård, doing his typical crazy uncle routine to fun effect), a travelling hairdresser who also entertains and does a little healing on the side; the latter aspect of their business necessarily inconspicuous as the practice of medicine is outlawed in 11th Century England, with the church equating such procedures with black magic. Steadfastly dedicated to developing his craft in order to redeem the death of his mother, there is hope for Rob, though, in the form of the legendary Ibn Sīnā (Ben Kingsley), a Persian pedagogue who teaches medicine. During the Islamic Golden Age of the Middle Ages, medicine was far more advanced than in Europe - so it’s off to the Isfahan college for Rob. A little problem; Christians like Rob are forbidden within the school, although Jews are tolerated. Can Rob pass as Hebrew to complete his studies with Sīnā? Will his surgery skills make the, uh, cut?
Although the historical veracity of The Physician has been questioned by audiences with a far greater understanding of the subject matter than me, it is nonetheless irresistible to correlate certain plot points within the film to current delineations; notably its positive depiction of Islam as a peaceful cradle of culture, dedicated to preserving history and art, music, and literature, a representation of that world which contrasts constructively its typical portrayal in Western cinema (i.e., as a prehistoric enemy). Of course, positing a more optimistic depiction of a people and society does not necessarily entail an entertaining film, but The Physician is nothing if not eminently watchable; despite its marathon length, pacing is never an issue as the film zips along at a fair old stride, allowing us a kaleidoscope view of its various set pieces, seeped in sumptuous period detail. Tom Payne is by turns naïve and heroic, while the genre flavours of the film take in romance, adventure and medical drama. If there is a problem with The Physician it’s that the scope of the film is so ambitious, based upon a novel with over 600 pages no less, that at times, there is an unavoidably crowded feel to the narrative, with certain aspects perhaps not given the time and attention they probably needed; the circumcision scene, potentially a scene of much drama and suspense (Rob does it to himself, and, also, is forgoing his entire belief system as he does so) is rather brief, for example, ending up as not much more than a little clip in the overarching narrative.
However, like its central character, The Physician is a film proud with ambition and good intentions. And while it may stumble occasionally, for the most part it is skilful in executing its many thrills and spills. Within its warm heart, there are elements of true grandeur.




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