Film Review: ‘The Physician’

The Physician movie review

Arriving in U.S. theaters a week before 'Exodus,' this robust period epic offers a more skeptical view of religion's role in world history.

For those who miss the substance and scope of films like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Man Who Would Be King,” Philipp Stoelzl’s “The Physician” restores one’s faith in the medium — if not necessarily one’s faith in faith. A hearty historical epic that pits intellectual progress against the stifling influence of world religions, this absorbing adaptation of Noah Gordon’s international bestseller — better known abroad, where the film has earned more than 3.5 million admissions, airing on German television in its full four-hour form — tells of a lowly English urchin who travels halfway around the globe to study under Persian thinker Ibn Sina.

Though never widely embraced in the States, Gordon’s immersive 1986 novel introduced world readers to medieval hero Rob Cole, a Christian lad so committed to advancing the sorry state of 11th-century medicine that he disguised himself as Jewish (going so far as to perform his own circumcision) and schlepped across the desert, battling sandstorms, superstition and plagues in an effort to illuminate the Dark Ages. At a time when adaptations of anything other than Bible stories and comicbooks seem rare, such a robust project should be celebrated, making it easy to overlook a certain corniness that comes with territory.

We meet Rob as a child, helpless to cure the mysterious condition that ails his mother — and resentful of the local priest who warns that any attempt to interfere with God’s will is tantamount to “witchcraft.” Rob has been born with a unique gift, though most would probably consider it a curse, which allows him to detect grave illness merely by touching another. But at a time when medicine is mistaken for black magic, there is little he can do for those he diagnoses … and so his mother is allowed to die, leaving Rob an orphan.

The young lad attaches himself to Barber (Stellan Skarsgard, looking fittingly haggard), a traveling sawbones whose methods are nothing short of barbaric: He sees no cause to cure when he can amputate, and routinely ignores science, since showmanship clearly does more to impress the crowd gathered round his rickety cart-cum-operating room. Growing up fast, Rob (played from this moment forward by Tom Payne) gleans what he can from Barber’s methods, dodging testy townspeople and distrustful monks at every stop along their route.

Though unflatteringly portrayed, Christianity itself is not the antagonistic force here, even as the film reveals ways that religious doctrine discourages new practices that might serve to extend human life — still true today, as evidenced by the debates over stem-cell research (though it should also be said that over the centuries, many hospitals have been supported by religious groups). Whether home in England — where the living conditions mirror the mud-caked squalor of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” — or abroad in the relatively enlightened Persian city of Isfahan, Rob must contend with the pervasive distrust of science.

Ultimately, his quest is one against ignorance, and resistance comes from Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders alike, though the implication is that humans hide behind such systems when they fear the unknown. In this respect, Rob is a pioneer, embarking upon a journey to the Orient at great personal risk in order to meet the legendary Ibn Sina (Ben Kingsley), during which he rechristens himself Yassi Ben Benyamin for safe passage. Though Stoelzl takes full advantage of his widescreen canvas from the beginning, the desert interlude — heightened by the pic’s Maurice Jarre-like score — gives “The Physician” a truly expansive feel.

From a casting perspective, landing Kingsley makes all the difference to the film. The actor’s stature confers immediate respect upon the Persian philosopher, whom he also imbues with uncharacteristic humility, embodying a teacher who seems equally eager to learn, making him an unlikely ally when Rob/Yassi’s behavior veers into taboo territory: Acting on his own, the over-eager student dissects the corpse of a Zoroastrian who has died of appendicitis, for which he is charged with necromancy — at least until such time as his newfound knowledge helps to treat the shah (Olivier Martinez) for a similar affliction.

Mixed in with such intrigues are a superfluous romantic subplot involving a saucer-eyed Spanish beauty, Rebecca (Emma Rigby), betrothed to a Jewish aristocrat; an elaborate scheme hatched by Muslim leaders to seize control of the city; and an outbreak of the “Black Death” that demands quick thinking on the part of Isfahan’s top medical minds to bring the pandemic under control. It seems frivolous for audiences to worry whether Rob can consummate his love for Rebecca (or even whether she can survive the plague) when an entire city’s lives are in danger. And yet, thanks to Payne’s eminently relatable lead performance, Rob convincingly blossoms from lowly wretch to self-assured (and somewhat entitled) hero over the course of the film’s 150-minute running time.

For all the effort put into re-creating the era in question — supported here by awe-inspiring visual effects work by Pixomondo — Jan Berger’s script still relies on simplistic emotional ploys and reductive characterizations (particularly problematic among the sniveling stereotypes who serve as villains) to manipulate our feelings. But then, such tactics proved perfectly acceptable in such hefty period offerings as “Braveheart” and “Gladiator,” and “The Physician” truly is a comparable achievement.

Film Review: 'The Physician'

Reviewed at Bestfilmfest, Prague, July 12, 2015. (Also in Berlin Film Festival.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 150 MIN. (Original title: “Der Medicus”)


(Germany) A Wrekin Hill release, presented with Beta Cinema, of an UFA Cinema production, in co-production with Degeto Film, in association with Cinepostproduction, Pixomondo, Cine Mobil, funded by Film und Medien Stiftung, Mitteldeutsche Medienforderung, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, FFA Filmfordeungsanstalt, DFFF Deutscher Filmforderfonds. Produced by Bauer, Hofmann. Executive producer, Sebastian Werninger. Co-producer, Christine Strobl, Jan Mojto, Dirk Schurhoff. Creative producer, Ulrich Schwarz.


Directed by Philipp Stoelzl. Screenplay, Jan Berger, based on the novel by Noah Gordon. Camera (color, widescreen), Hagen Bogdanski; editor, Sven Budelmann; music, Ingo Ludwig Frenzel; music supervisor, Stefan Broedner; production designer, Udo Kramer; costume designer, Thomas Olah; sound (Dolby Digital), Max Thomas Meindl; sound designers, Guido Zettier; re-recording mixer, Benjamin Rosenkind; visual effects supervisor, Denis Behnke; visual effects, Pixomondo; line producer, Sascha Schwill; associate producers, Lise Gordon, Christoph Muller; casting, Leo Davis, Lissy Holm, Emrah Ertem, Nina Haun.


Tom Payne, Stellan Skarsgard, Olivier Martinez, Emma Rigby, Elyas M'Barek, Fahri Yardim, Makram J. Khoury, Michael Marcus, Ben Kingsley. (English dialogue)

Filed Under:

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 13

Leave a Reply


Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  1. Mr. Reader says:

    The book was more intricate, the movie was still good, and I’m just amazed by the strange effect it’s had on these terrified commenters.

  2. Dr. Jekyll says:

    “an elaborate scheme hatched by [EXTREMIST] Muslim leaders to seize control of the city,” as Isfahan was already under Muslim rule.

  3. Danna says:

    totally a Presian history falsification, not even one part of the movie is base on fact, shame on people who for political reasons and money feed people total lies!!!!

  4. Lie ditector says:

    Such a failure!!!
    Such a lie!!!

    I cant beileive in the 21st centurey they can distort the reality and the history so easily and unprofessionaly. It is cleare that this movie has been made for some political and biased reasons otherwise everyone knows showing Ibn Sina who were the greatest scholar who served the most for our current science cant be such a naive person who didnt know as much as an english youth. A barber man.

    Where is the name of this englishman cole in the history that the world never heard about him that he was the teacher of Ibn Sina. The director is the first one who discovered this hand made, fake story…

    Such a shame!

  5. cat says:

    I watched the movie just last night and I hardly could bear it. While technically it is a well made Movie with beautiful scene, it is dreadfully a historical falsification. It seems the script writer and the director did never ever read a line about the historical period the movie goes on. You can see an Arabic architecture in Isfahan with stone made buildings! There is no evidence of masterpiece brick and adobe buildings and Persian architecture. In the east there was no separation between religious and scientific knowledge (at the historical age the Ibne Sina was living). They called their polymaths as Hakim, who knew all knowledge. So there was not religious radicals because there was no difference between different branches of knowledge. Ibne Sina was a Muslim who has writings on philosophy, medicine,astronomy, alchemy, geography and geology, psychology, Islamic theology, logic, mathematics, physics and poetry, but in the movie it feels like he is a student or coworker for the young Cole! rather than a teacher. People’s costume and cultural behavior are a mixture of HollyWood atmosphere (like so many scenes of whorehouse in Muslim lands!!! and in the Islamic Golden Age) and something made up!(or maybe a little of Arabic dresses and architecture). While it is a fictional character the movie is focusing on (Rob Cole) but I think If you even want to lie you have to tell it in a way to make it believable. And the movie is a big unbelievable lie. It seems that all the Christian and Muslim worlds suffer a conflict between religion and science while a minority group of Jews are very cultured and embracing.

  6. rjh4774 says:

    I really enjoyed the film beautifully crafted and very well acted thank you for a truly joyful experience i so can not wait for the film to be available in the usa so that i may own a copy for my self if only i could Obtain autograph’s from the director and the Crew god bless robert j hornstein

  7. Essentially an anti-Christian romp, that goes undetected because evidently Christianity and Christians are always deservedly considered evil, backwards oppressors that are notoriously deleterious to progress in today’s time. Conveniently we forget about Marcus Tsellus, the Library of Alexandria or Da Vinci (all supported by Christianity) in favour of intrigue that fits the current political and social tide.

    Thus, the historic picture of the book is completely inaccurate–focusing (potentially) on Roman Catholic positions towards medicine and ignoring Orthodox (ancient Christian) views, which were the majority at the time–particularly in the East, where Cole flees. The mere idea that he would have to disguise himself as a Jew or as anyone merely to undertake medical study owing to the “barbaric Christian views” on medicine is simply wishful thinking on the part of the anti-Christian and anti-religious contingent that wrote the book and supported the film. Cole merely would have needed to learn Greek, the common language.

    As if the movie’s message is not enough, well noted also is the critic’s stab at Christianity in current opposition to stem cell research that comes out of nowhere. He could at least do justice to the issue and consider the bigger contention that Christians have with the research–it requires aborted foetuses to supply the stem cells. Thus, it is not stem cell research that Orthodox Christianity stands against, but the current means to that end. By the same token, medical practice that involved anti-Christian practices (such as sacrifices, fire dances, etc) as the means, were similarly discouraged, though not suppressed. Pretty much that holds true in most societies today. However, support of ethical means of research and scientific enquiry as opposed to any means necessary is too complicated a position for people that want to summarily dismiss religious beliefs. Ironically, if we were talking about using shampoo on dogs or something to advance science, everyone would attack the researcher.

    Furthermore, let’s consider the critic’s one “caveat” to his apology for what he and the film incorrectly argues is the Christian position in regards to medicine:

    “though it should also be said that over the centuries, many hospitals have been supported by religious groups”
    –In fact, hospitals were founded SPECIFICALLY BY Christianity (as were Universities) in Byzantine times. The “medical study” that the author (and the film) attempts to attach to Zorastrianism was actually from Christianity. No hospitals or anything of the kind predated the Christian Roman (i.e., Byzantine) conquest of Persia. Moreover, since the Empire encompassed Persia but Persia broke free during the Arab conquest, the idea that Christianity stood in the way of medical or scientific practice (while the Persians did not) is complete nonsense. More likely, the author incorrectly identifies the ancient Christian position with the Roman Catholic (i.e., Western Christian) take on scientific discovery, which came around the time of the Great Schism (1054). However, understandably, that occurred during Western Europe’s dark ages. It had nothing to do with Christianity.

    • Oliver Heidelbach says:

      >>The mere idea that he would have to disguise himself as a Jew or as anyone merely to undertake
      >>medical study owing to the “barbaric Christian views” on medicine is simply wishful thinking on the
      >>part of the anti-Christian and anti-religious contingent that wrote the book and supported the film

      I just watched the movie yesterday and I think you should rewatch it carefully. It is clearly said in an early dialogue that the protagonist would not make it to Isfahan because the Muslims would not tolerate Christians to travel their territory, but merely Jews. The anti-Christian dogma as you call it, which is a travel restriction in the plot, is clearly put on the Muslims here and I cannot see how you can make the connection you make above.

      From my point of view the movie tried to balance the anti-religious “dogmas” carefully and each of the named, Christians, Muslims and Jews got their share. Like also mentioned in the review I think this is to be considered a (not too fictitious) take on religion as such in those times – like in the world is not flat as we all know and accept nowadays.

      • mo says:

        @ Maurice Ewing

        Thank you for the warning. I found this film on Netflix just tonight but didn’t know anything about it. I am glad I sought out some reviews.

  8. Barbara Boudreau says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed Noah Gordon’s novel The Physician and have been eagerly waiting for it to come to a nearby theater. During the summer I saw it on a Lufthansa flight, which made it clear that it would be even more enjoyable on a large screen without the competing engine noise. Why has it only been screened for one week in three suburban theaters with minimal publicity? What is its future?

  9. lametta says:

    An amazing epic done right !

  10. Senmut says:

    Sounds like the usual anti-Christian garbage.

More Film News from Variety