Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Review: The Physician

The Physician is two and a half hours long. Two and a half hours! In perhaps the biggest European (and non-British) production of recent times, German director Philipp Stölzl adapts Noah Gordon’s novel of the same name, about an 11th century English physician, who travels to Persia to learn the secrets of his trade. On a purely technical level, The Physician shows that Europe can compete with Hollywood. The budget, which according to German publicationSpiegel is 26 million euros, can be seen on the screen. The visual effects, the costumes and the set design are of a very high level. The performances are, some wobbly accents aside, also rather good. Tom Payne makes for a decent leading man, whereas the reliable Stellan Skarsgård and Sir Ben Kingsley provide some star-power in supporting roles.
Unfortunately, the film is however all over the place and cannot decide what it wants to be about. As is often the case in literary adaptations, there are too many underdeveloped subplots and unexplored relationships. The central and most interesting theme, the history of medicine, is quickly abandoned for a generic adventure story and heavy-handed religious metaphors, desperately trying to make it “epic.”
The only significant female character is meanwhile reduced to the role of the damsel in distress, deeply in love with the hero for no reason. The story covers a period of several years, but Stölzl fails to convey the duration of this. A plague epidemic for instance seems to be over within a matter of a few days without many consequences other than a few dead bodies.
Then there’s the matter of the hero’s “superpowers.” He is able to foresee a person’s death by touching them, because everything is suddenly slow-motion; but only when the plot requires him to. This is not only silly, but completely undermines the historical and scientific aspect of the movie.  
If The Physician was 100 minutes long, it could be described as a fun, forgettable adventure film, but it’s simply not enough for two and a half hours. It’s not bad, it’s just very mediocre and the most frustrating thing is the obvious potential. Had the budget been 13 instead of 26 million, it would probably have made for a better film. The Physician is ultimately a missed chance for European cinema to prove that it can produce quality, entertaining movies on large scale, which is a shame.


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