Anthropoid — Review

Jamie Dornan (l) and Cillian Murphy (r) in a scene from Sean Ellis’ Anthropoid.


“A lot more that could have been done here, had the plot been stitched together according to the laws of storytelling rather than the laws of history book summarizing.”

by Ken Bakely

DISCLAIMER: This review references historical events which, in the context of this film, may be classified as spoilers.

Sometimes, it’s worth questioning to what degree a historical film seems engaging on its own merits, or because the story it’s adopting is so dramatic. Sean Ellis’ Anthropoid is a key example of this – it’s a professionally crafted movie, but it’s difficult to point to anything outside of the last thirty minutes which one could find enthralling. Yet the source material is so fascinating that it seems as if the whole thing works. But the point of a review is to critique the project, not comment on history, and that’s when the screenplay’s structural unevenness becomes clear.

The movie takes its title from Operation Anthropoid, the codename for a mission ordered by the Czechoslovak government-in-exile in 1942. Its goal was to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich (Detlef Bothe), the ruthless Nazi commander who orchestrated the Holocaust and was tasked with governing Czechoslovakia. Two agents carry this killing out – Jozef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan). The task itself turns out to be the easy part. In the aftermath of the attack, Hitler calls for a massive manhunt across Prague, with the ultimatum that if the perpetrators are not apprehended, local authorities will be ordered to destroy the city’s surrounding villages, residents included. The assassins face a moral ultimatum: continue to hide and be the catalyst for thousands of deaths, or face their own end.

The conclusion of this chapter of World War II history is the stuff of legend – the Nazis discovered that Gabčík, Kubiš, and their co-conspirators had hidden themselves in the catacombs of an old church in the city’s center. Hundreds of soldiers barricaded the building, storming inside. An hours-long shootout ensued in the sanctuary of the church, and each of the individuals being sought committed suicide, knowing that they would not escape. Not a single one of them was taken alive. Anthropoid recreates this finalé in an engaging final act. Ellis is a strong director of action setpieces, and gives appropriate perspective and space to each moving part. This is the movie’s most accomplished sequence.

But nearly everything which precedes it is mediocre at best. The script, written by Ellis and Anthony Frewin, doesn’t make any serious attempts at building a concrete plot structure. Bland events lead into bland events, and character names are thrown around. One’s interest is piqued when Heydrich himself is assassinated, about midway through the 120 minute runtime, but that’s only because of the inherent implications of the event and of Ellis’ abilities in directing the ensuing chase sequence, which sees Gabčík and Kubiš barely escaping initial capture. Murphy and Dornan have arresting presences – with measured, clipped delivery mixed with controlled body language. Yet it’s difficult for performances to stand out when the material the actors have been given is so underworked.

It’s hard to recommend a movie which works because it happens to be based on the right material. Frankly, it would have been impossible to make an entirely boring movie based on Operation Anthropoid. Ellis’ problem is how close he got, but still came short. Yet he’s too accomplished a filmmaker to throw it all away. When the screenplay is muddled, his solid visual achievements – highlighting the cinematography and production design – work in at least making Anthropoid interesting to look at. When everything comes together for that barnburner of a climax, watch out. But on top of it all is the notion that a lot more that could have been done here, had the plot been stitched together according to the laws of storytelling rather than the laws of history book summarizing.

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