Writer: Sean Ellis, Anthony Frewin
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Toby Jones, Charlotte Le Bon, Anna Geislerová
Running time: 120mins
What’s the story: In 1942, partisans selected by the London-based Czechoslovakian government are tasked with aiding the Czech resistance in the assassination of high-ranking SS official Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler’s second-in-command.
What’s the verdict: The plot against Reinhard Heydrich has been filmed numerous times previously, notably in 1943 by Fritz Lang as Hangmen Also Die, and again in 1975 as Operation Daybreak by Spy Who Loved Me director Lewis Gilbert.
Anthropoid was the real name of the operation to assassinate Himmler’s no.2, the man known as “the Butcher of Prague.” While the film sticks to its guns with the audience unfriendly title, it’s ultimately a lesser work than those earlier re-tellings.
Slow for the first hour, crucially it never conveys the sheer monstrousness of Heydrich, the fanatical Nazi instrumental in orchestrating the Holocaust and someone Adolf Hitler declared, “The man with the iron heart.”
Cashback director Sean Ellis shoots in sombre, muted browns and greys, the suspicion and fear of Czech life under Nazi rule literally draining the colour from the city.
Murphy and Dornan (50 Shades of Grey’s Christian Grey) are suitably desperate and driven as Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, parachuted in for the mission. Toby Jones is typically impressive as “Uncle” Hajský, the mousy brain behind Czech resistance. But, too much running time is devoted to Gabcik and Kubis’ circumspect courtship with fellow resistance fighters Marie and Lenka (Le Bon and Geislerová).
Where Anthropoid succeeds is in conveying the weight of the central, impossible moral conundrum. Heydrich was one of the Third Reich’s cruelest monsters (and he had strong competition), but any assassination was guaranteed to trigger harsh reprisals.
The ambush on the SS man’s transport is well-realised, the fury and panic on both sides scorched on the screen in the handheld camerawork, physical performances and aggressive sound design amplifying every bullet ricochet and impact.
Ellis also does not spare any grim detail as the pitiless Gestapo rip apart the city searching for the conspirators. No room here for the camp histrionics of Inglourious Basterds or the noble intentions of Valkyrie’s renegades. Nazi enforcers are accurately depicted as vicious agents of fascism, employing violence, torture and worse to ensnare the fugitives, culminating in an explosive stand-off in the Karel Boromejsky Church.
This depiction of just how terrible the Nazi’s were is Ellis and co-writer and one-time Stanley Kubrick assistant Anthony Frewin’s biggest achievement. The film’s best moment may be a tragi-tense scene when a resistance member loses his cyanide capsule as the Gestapo are kicking down the door, and the audience is actively willing him to find the poison.
Overall, not a disaster. But a distinctive modern Operation Anthropoid film is still to arrive. Perhaps it will be the upcoming Jason Clark, Jack O’Connell and Rosamund Pike version HHhH, which tells the same story as the one here.
Rob Daniel Twitter: rob_a_Daniel
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