“Remember boy: the more painful the treatment, the more they respect the Barber” ~ The Barber
This medieval movie is based on the 1986 novel, The Physician by Noah Gordon.
We open the story in England in 1021 A.D. as a young Robert Cole, played by Tom Payne (Waterloo Road, Luck) watches helplessly as his mother succumbs to “side sickness” a.k.a., appendicitis. He runs to the travelling Barber, played by veteran Stellan Skarsgård (Good Will Hunting, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) in hopes of saving her but he is thwarted by the village priest who views all outside medical intervention as witchcraft. After she dies, he is separated from his two younger sisters and completely abandoned by the village priest. He follows the Barber out of the village and becomes his apprentice and they travel far and wide offering healing and medicines to the villages and cities they pass through. Robert is fascinated by anatomy and healing and often wonders what’s inside the human body but he is warned by the Barber that can be deemed necromancy by the Church. Robert also has this strange ability it know I when someone is close to death. We first see this when he touches his mother while she is all and then after the Barber extracts a tooth from an old man. The Barber is accused of witchcraft by the local clergy and they escape after their cart is set on fire. While living with the Barber, he learns basic medical treatments but he’s not satisfied.
“I don’t want to treat warts all my life. I don’t want to pull teeth and sell colored horse piss as a miracle tonic! I want to learn how to cure the cataract, I want to learn how to cure the side sickness and all the other diseases.” ~ Robert/Jesse
The Barber suffers from cataracts and is losing his sight. Rob goes to see a Jewish medic to help cure him. The Barber is cured and Rob decides he must learn how he was cured so he embarks on a journey to visit Ibn Sina, played by Ben Kingsley (Schindler’s List, Shutter Island) – the greatest medic in the world. Unfortunately, he is told that Christians are not tolerated, as it is a Muslim land and he will be killed if he attempts to go there. Rob, undaunted, decides to go in the guise of a Jew, as Jesse Ben Benjamin, so he can become a “Hakim”, a proper Physician studying under Ibn Sina. How serious is he? He goes so far as to circumcise himself to fully pass as Jewish! En route to Isfahan, he meets the beautiful Rebecca played by British actress Emma Rigby (Hollyoaks, Red Queen) and falls in love with her but she is married. Plague hits the city and Rebecca is abandoned by her husband who flees the Isfahan leaving Rob/Jesse to happily tend to her. I enjoyed Rigby’s performance and her chemistry with Payne is believable and not cheesy. The love triangle doesn’t dominate the rest of the film but is woven in to the storyline unobtrusively. He learns from Ibn Sina, befriends the Shah, played by Oliver Martinez (Before Night Falls, Blood and Chocolate). Payne does a brilliant job as Robert Cole/Jesse Ben Benjamin. Payne does a wonderful job engaging his audience as the kind hearted Rob/Jesse. Kingsley is marvelous as the great Ibn Sina.
“We don’t treat disease, we treat the people who suffer from diseases.” ~Ibn Sina
It feels like you’re watching two separate movies – the first part in England, the second in Persia but it’s not disjointed in any way. It’s a beautifully shot movie; the details of Rob/Jesse’s journey, like the deadly brutality of a sandstorm, and the beauty of the desert are wonderfully captured in this film. The acting is amazing, and the dialogue is solid. Although it’s slow and two and a half hours long, it really captures your attention and imagination. This is time well wasted. It’s sad that this didn’t hit American theatres and was only released in Germany and the UK. This is more of the kind of movie you want to see rather than the usually garbage Hollywood pumps out. It’s a brilliant film and one well worth your medieval Saturday night in!