Sean Ellis’ Anthropoid is something of a conundrum; as a film, it fails where success seemed assured and succeeds where it looked most likely to fail. It’s this uneven quality that precludes Anthropoid from attaining greatness, but it still manages to tell a fascinating and important story with enough watchability to garner my recommendation with only minor caveats.
The principal issue here is one of pacing, a problem most likely originating with the script, penned by Ellis and Anthony Frewin. The first half of the film confuses tedium for tension, and the second half abandons subtlety altogether for a frenetic shootout sequence that dominates the vast majority of the third act. However, this imbalance is predominantly overcome by a particularly bold narrative gambit and some excellent performances.
The film takes its title from Operation Anthropoid, a secret mission undertaken by the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile and a small band of Czech and Slovak resistance fighters to assassinate SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich. Known as “The Butcher of Prague,” Heydrich is considered to have been the principal architect of the Nazi’s Final Solution and was dubbed “the man with the iron heart” by Hitler himself. In short, Heydrich was an evil son of a bitch, and easily the best villain any historical drama could hope for. And Anthropoid depicts the historical events surrounding his assassination with meticulous accuracy, at times to a fault. That said, even though I know the story of Heydrich’s death well, the film still managed to surprise me with the attack itself, a nigh-miraculous achievement. By placing this event at the second-act climax, as opposed to in third act, where most screenwriting books would’ve suggested it belonged, the filmmakers buy themselves the opportunity to examine the tragic consequences of the heroic mission on a very human level.
If the film largely succeeds on the level of structure, it falls short in the characterization department. Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan star as Josef Gabcík and Jan Kubis, the British-trained Czechoslovak operatives who carry out the assassination, supported by Charlotte Le Bon, and Anna Geislerová. The pitfall inherent to depicting historical figures is often that we know what they did, but seldom why they did it. Therefore, character motivations beyond sweeping platitudes such as “patriotism” or “duty” tend to be overlooked, and this is definitely the case with Anthropoid. However, Murphy imbues some depth to Gabcík’s simmering rage, and Dornan is so convincing that I forgot all about his 50 Shades of cinematic sin until after the credits rolled. Le Bon is competent, or at least better than she was in The Walk, and Geislerová steals a particularly entertaining scene out from under Murphy. I have to mention Toby Jones, if only because I’m happy when he turns up in a film, but he’s not given much to do this time around. Ultimately, the cast performs admirably in spite of the rigid material they’ve been handed, and location shoots in Prague lend the film a sense of credibility and scope that go a long way in overcoming the script’s fixation on historical minutiae.
Anthropoid exits in a strange market niche as a foreign arthouse title with aspirations to summer shoot-‘em-up status, but it manages to carve a spot for itself in a week replete with solid movie-going options. Those who miss the days when The History Channel ran seemingly endless blocks of WWII programming instead of vapid reality TV will find a welcome familiarity in Anthropoid, and even those who have little familiarity with, or interest in, the events depicted will likely find the film to be memorable and compelling on its own cinematic merits. While a film about the assassination of one of the most despicable men to ever walk the Earth may not sound like the feel-good hit of the summer, if you’ll pardon the pun, it’s definitely worth a shot. Rated R for violence and some disturbing images.
Starts Friday, August 12 at Carolina Cinemark