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.