Title: The Physician
Director: Philipp Stoelzl
Major Players: Ben Kingsley, Stellan Skarsgard, Tom Payne
Out Of Five: 2.5
What are the chances? A few weeks ago I took issue with the 15 certificate given to the DVD of Big Game. A nip here and tuck there would have turned it into an OK 12A, so that the audience it was really aimed at could actually watch it. Yet here we go again, this time with Middle Ages epic, The Physician – certificate 15, of course.
It’s one in a long line of films set in the Dark Ages but, for a change, there’s no knights in shining armour or Crusaders. The setting is a little earlier, starting off in post-Roman Britain, where young Rob (Tom Payne) realises he has a talent for healing the sick. More disconcertingly, he can tell if somebody is going to die. Left to fend for himself after his mother’s death, he hitches a ride with an itinerant barber-surgeon (Stellan Skarsgard) and, on their travels, hears about the legendary Persian physician Avicenna (Ben Kingsley). He decides to track him down so that he can join his medical school, a journey that takes him to the other side of the world and be accepted there, even though he’s a Christian.
Like others in the same vein, this is a European production, this time produced in Germany and with a cast including actors from the UK, Sweden and France. Thankfully, it has an English script, instead of some clumsy dubbing, and it’s better than you might expect: not superior, it has to be said, but it certainly doesn’t clunk too loudly.
With a teenage boy as its hero, it’s clearly aimed at the Y A audience, even if the setting isn’t the customary post-dystopian one. But it’s another instance where a bit more editing would have meant this DVD would have reached the audience it was aimed for. Because a few bare breasts and the result of an amputation are left in, it gets a 15. If there’s another reason for its rating, then I missed it. And a 15 audience will find it overlong and ponderous, even if it does weave a careful path through the religious sensitivities of the time between Muslims, Jews and Christians. It gives the film an unexpectedly contemporary edge.
But it simply isn’t enough to hold the interest of an adult audience. And nor can its bigger names, Skarsgad and Kingsley, keep it from being more than just average. Stellan Skarsgad is goes to waste as the nameless barber/surgeon, appearing in just the first third of the film, while Kingsley has more to work with as the master physician and, as usual, makes the most of it. He must be one of the hardest working actors around at the moment. This was just one of six feature films he had released back in 2013, there were another seven last year and for 2015 there should be at least five, including the recent Life.
And what was the reported $36 million budget was spent on? It certainly didn’t go on the unconvincing landscapes or the sandstorm in the desert that nearly kills Rob on his way to Persia. Director Philipp Stoelzl should take lessons from Ridley Scott’s The Martian. While the many crowd scenes kept plenty of extras in work, some of them are so conspicuously ill at ease, they should have ended up on the digital equivalent of the cutting room floor.
We’ve been here before, and not just when it comes to The Physician’s rating. DVD racks are full of movies like this, would-be epics set in the Middle Ages that are little more than average and wouldn’t have been improved by an outing at the cinema. Because their shortcomings would have been even more obvious.
The Physician is released on DVD on Monday, 5 October and is reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 8 October.