First things first, ‘Anthropoid’ is a terrible title that is difficult to pronounce and will be meaningless to anyone other than a select sect of WWII history buffs. That’s a shame, because the movie that bears the name is actually rather good and could use some help to get eyeballs pointed in its general direction.
Although this is ultimately another romantically melodramatic WWII picture, at least it’s told from the perspective of an underground resistance against the Nazis. These tales are fascinating to watch now since they essentially showcase a noble use of terrorist war tactics against what is universally agreed to be the worst group of baddies in the 20th Century. That makes the story oddly politicized these days. As a result, it’s an intriguing take on the historical action film.
Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan star as Josef and Jan, a pair of Czech freedom fighters in the middle of Nazi occupation. At the time, the Czechs needed to prove to the West that they could be thought of as allies in need of support. As a result, a plan was hatched called Operation Anthropoid. (That would be the reason for the movie’s unfortunate title.) The plan was to assassinate top Nazi general Reinhard Heydrich (Detlef Bothe). Along with a few masterminds (obviously Toby Jones plays one because it’s a necessity he be in all movies of this sort), Jan and Josef were selected for the task. Merely moving around the city to plot an attack was impossible, so they brought in two women (Charlotte Le Bon and Anna Gieslerova) to pretend to be their dates during city walks and photography expeditions. Eventually, a plausible mode of attack appears. The only problem is that security is so tight, the chances of anyone making it out alive are slim to none. However, since ignoring the fight wasn’t an option, the team marched on.
Suffice to say, ‘Anthropoid’ is a tough film and a bit of a downer. Though the lines between the good guys and bad couldn’t be clearer, the path to heroism is murky at best and beset with peril. This is essentially a suicide mission, and writer/director Sean Ellis (‘Cashback’, ‘Metro Manila’) shoots it through the shadowy palette and somber tones of a funeral march. It’s not a fun movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s filled with suspense, peril and daring-do. The eventual assassination and fallout are masterfully shot and staged with deep visceral impact. Ellis favors handheld camera realism, but with a sense of suspense film grammar and editing. It’s all carefully controlled to keep audiences on the edge of their seats, yet loosely shot through messy realism. The results can be both emotionally devastating and thrillingly exciting. It’s a nasty slice of history from a war usually depicted in films with glossy heroism.
The performances are also quite strong, particularly from a battered and bruised Cillian Murphy. The actor has made some wise choices in his career, tending to favor character roles over pretty boy leading man parts, and he always delivers. Here he plays a guy who seems to have accepted death from the start of the story and only leaves his bleak state of mind for moments of happiness he’ll ultimately regret. Jamie Dornan plays his more dumbbell partner who isn’t quite as somber, and as a result isn’t quite as prepared for the inevitable. It’s nice to report that Dornan actually delivers a decent performance given that ’50 Shades of Grey’ seemed to suggest he was incapable of such things. Everyone else is impressively naturalistic as well, especially when things go wrong and they’re put through a relentless chain of horrible ordeals.
‘Anthropoid’ isn’t exactly a bit of light summer entertainment. It’s grim, depressing and all too real. However, it’s also a well-produced movie of impressive emotional and visceral power. Perhaps it can be a little dry while setting things up and a little melodramatic when wringing every possible emotion out of the tragic downfall. However, these missteps tend to be minor. For the most part, the movie is a harsh and exciting war movie ride executed by talented and passionate artists on all levels. If you’re looking for some underground war excitement with a side of deeply depressing drama, this movie is your summertime jam.