Movie Review: 'Anthropoid' a Tense, Riveting WWII Procedural

Movie Review: 'Anthropoid' a Tense, Riveting WWII Procedural

The fascinating WWII story of the assassination of Nazi Obergruppenführer and Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia Reinhard Heydrich by Czech resistance fighters in Prague is brought to vivid life in director Sean Ellis’ stark new drama Anthropoid, which premieres in local cinemas tomorrow on Czech Statehood Day, September 28.

Also known as the Butcher of Prague, Heydrich was among the primary architects of the Holocaust and one of the highest-ranking Nazi officials under Adolf Hitler, who called his third-in-command “the man with the iron heart.”

His assassination in Prague by a team Czech parachutists trained in Britain by the RAF and led by Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš was one of the key events not just in World War II, but also in modern Czech history.

The story of Operation Anthropoid has been told numerous times before, in a pair of Hollywood B-movies (directed by Fritz Lang and Douglas Sirk, no less) released during the war, the stark 1964 Czech drama Atentát (The Assassination), and the 1975 US-produced Operation Daybreak.

Daybreak, despite a loopy synth score that feels like it came from a John Carpenter horror flick, is what I consider to be the definitive version of the events, though its wide scope and procedural-like approach to the story have the side-effect of sacrificing character development.

Looking at the action-heavy trailer for 2016’s Anthropoid, starring Fifty Shades of Grey’s Jamie Dornan, you might expect this to be a romanticized, Hollywood-ized version of the story.

But I was pleasantly shocked to find the film follow Daybreak’s lead with a no-nonsense approach to the material, an especially high level of reverence for the actual events (only the Call of Duty-like finale feels out of place), and a narrow focus that allows for some richer character work.

Dornan is Kubiš and Cillian Murphy is Gabčík, and after a brief opening scrawl we pick right up with them as they land in a field outside of Prague. Thanks to the film’s focus – these two characters are front and center for almost the entire film – we get to know them much better than in previous versions of the story, even if the screenwriters (director Ellis and former Stanley Kubrick assistant Anthony Frewin) have to invent at least some of their personalities. 

But it’s nice to see these heroes humanized in ways that we haven’t seen before; Dornan’s Kubiš is reluctant and even panicked at first (in real life, Kubiš had seen three years of action and would have likely been battle-hardened at this point), while Murphy’s Gabčík is committed and steadfast – though he may not realize the full consequences of their actions.

Dornan is just fine here, and gets a well-developed character arc that pays off nicely during the film’s intense final battle inside Prague’s Saints Cyril and Methodius Church. But its Murphy who ends up becoming the dominant presence in the movie thanks to his intense performance.

Both Irish actors, however, feature dicey Czech accents that can sometimes cause their dialogue to be harder to understand than the Czech (and other continental European) actors speaking non-native English.

Those supporting turns include finely-tuned work by Charlotte Le Bon and Aňa Geislerová as the resistance fighter’s girlfriends who become secondary to the mission (Geislerová is so good here you wonder how she hasn’t become a breakout star in other international productions); Václav Neužil as parachutist Josef Valčík; Jiří Šimek as the traitorous Karel Čurda; and Alena Mihulová as Mrs. Moravec.

Also solid: Toby Jones and Polish actor Marcin Dorociński as the Czech Resistance contacts in Prague, and Harry Lloyd as fellow parachutist Adolf Opálka.

Only complaint here: director Ellis, who also served as cinematographer, whips his camera around with reckless abandon as if he were shooting a Jason Bourne movie. While the film’s editing is sturdy, the effect can still be somewhat nauseating, and doesn’t match the somber tone of the rest of the film.

The Heydrich assassination itself is so carefully timed and edited that it almost reaches the level of a grand De Palma setpiece (think the train station shootout in The Untouchables), but just misses the mark due to the shakycam histrionics.

Advance reviews for Anthropoid weren’t all that kind after the film held its world premiere at the 2016 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival earlier this year, with many pointing to a lack of excitement during the film’s first half.

Most seemed to single out the action-packed Church shootout finale as a highlight; for me, this scene featured one too many Nazi soldiers mindlessly running into the line of fire to match the realism of the rest of the movie, though it is undeniably tense and exciting.

But like Operation DaybreakAnthropoid is the story of the planning of the Heydrich assassination and the men behind it more than a WWII action movie. And on that level it’s a rousing success.

Anthropoid was shot on location in the Czech capital last summer, and Prague looks gorgeous onscreen despite a muddy washout filter that encompasses the whole film. Central city scenes throughout the film will be recognizable to residents (and many, such as the climactic Church shootout, are shot in the actual locations.  Prague’s still-running Historic Tram 91 gets plenty of use, too.

There’s a timeless quality to the city that makes the integration almost seamless; set designers have altered the street signs and scrubbed buildings clean, but Prague otherwise passes for 1942 with minimal effort.

In local cinemas, the movie premieres tomorrow during the national holiday Czech Statehood Day, which is also the anniversary of the death of Saint Wenceslas. 

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