Review: ARQ

ARQ

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“In this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!”

Trailer

Back to the Netflix well this week – man, it does seem like I’m getting my movie watching fix from them at an ever increasing rate, huh? – for what was a relatively under-publicised sci-fi offering. Director Tony Elliot is best known for his work on TV series Orphan Black, but the streaming behemoth gave him the opportunity to bring this pet project to life. Favourable reviews from the Toronto International Film Festival gave me reason to optimistic. Could ARQ rise above its low budget essence, and prove itself an unlikely sci-fi classic?

In a dystopian future dominated by an oppressive corporate entity named Toros, Renton (Robbie Amell) a former Toros employee, reconnects with his once missing lover Hannah (Rachael Taylor). But when Renton’s home is invaded by soldiers of a resistance movement, both he and Hannah are caught in a bizarre time loop, connected to “the ARQ”, a strange technology stolen from Toros, that could hold the key to saving humanity.

The Groundhog Day time loop has become a very, very well-worn sci-fi sub-genre, whose potential intricacies have been long since explored, and explored well. ARQ’s whole hook is wrapped around the concept tightly, and in order for the film to succeed, it needs to find something new worth going after there.

And, to a certain extent, it does. ARQ takes the focus of having two people with wildly different motivations and personalities stuck in the same time-loop, with unpredictable people attacking them, people who might act true to their established nature from loop to loop, but who might, at any moment, reveal something new and very important about themselves. It’s a film loaded down with twists and treachery, but through the use of the time loop concept, manages to keep it all from becoming too by-the-books or overwrought.

Beyond that, it’s actually just a fun film is immerse yourself in. Despite what I can only presume is a tiny budget and the extremely limited shooting locations – essentially just the inside of a dilapidated home, and the majority of the film is in its basement – Elliott manages to craft a well-rounded and believable futurescape, where out of control corporations are the new law, the air outside the walls is poisonous and ragtag resistance movements rely on “scrip” – the corporations own system of money – to survive. Elliott didn’t need flashy CGI, extensive prologues or word crawls at the beginning to get his point across: the majority is simply told through news footage in the background, and the natural dialogue of the characters themselves, who never drop into exposition mode. The script generally is quite strong in that regard, save for when the technological aspects of things threatens to overwhelm the story in the last act.

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Taylor doesn’t pull her weight, out-staged by the more dynamic Amell.

The MacGuffin of the piece, even to a layman like me, is essentially magic with science terms attached to it, a perpetual motion device that, for some reason, starts resetting time in a three hour loop around it. While uncovering the mystery of the ARQ and why it is doing what it is doing is an important part of the plot, the film succeeds in making this a sort of tertiary priority of both characters and narrative. Instead, ARQ is more about the fractured relationship between Renton and Hannah, two people who have only just come back into each others lives. ARQ keeps you guessing whether the respectively damaged psyches of both – rather brilliantly teased out as we go along, between Renton’s hidden anger issues and Hannah’s deeper motivations for the reunion – can inter mesh again significantly.

In all of that Amell is doing rather well. Up to now he’s best known as a side character on The Flash, now getting into film at the same time as his slightly more illustrious cousin (this is better than TMNT: Out Of The Shadows though!). Amell illustrates a toughness underneath a more wizened and delicate exterior, and keeps the emotional stakes of the film going throughout, as he reacts to the succession of disasters and backstabbing confronting him in his mission to protect the ARQ. It’s unfortunate then that Taylor is such a drag, far from the good work she did on Jessica Jones, another Netflix property. Here, she lags behind Amell in terms of emotional reach and emotional delivery: when he gets caught up in the time loop, his reactions are perfect but for her, well, there are times when you can really tell that an actor is trying too hard, and Taylor struggles to just relax into the role that she has been given.

The other major part of proceedings is the clear and present danger presented by “the Bloc”, the goons of the local resistance movement, whose inner workings too present ample opportunity for backstabbing and betrayal. While most of the four characters are nobodies in terms of larger impact on the story, you still get a feel for their personalities, be they filled with desperate necessity, youthful naivety, psychopathic sadism or calculated violence. By the time we get to the last half hour, ARQ has concocted a scenario that is truly fascinating, namely, how do you react when you and your enemy are both looping, and both learning from everything that has come before?

Visually, ARQ is a great example of what can be accomplished on limited means. Renton’s home is a dishevelled, abused place, it’s damaged walls and dark corners the perfect analogy for the minds of the people inhabiting the space for the brisk 90+ minutes of screen-time. The windows are blacked out and the lighting is sparse, flashes of neon giving everything an occasionally ghoulish appearance. The only real future tech on display is holographic TV screens that some character pour scorn towards, until late-on of course. Things are kept suitably tight and confined when it comes to the camerawork: third act games of cat and mouse are expertly framed, keeping the tension ticking over.

Given it’s budget and other limitations, I’m happy to pronounce ARQ as a huge success, a film that manages to present a high-concept science fiction story within very defined parameters, intertwining it with a dystopic love story brilliantly. While one half of the leading pair isn’t pulling their weight enough, most of the cast does their job very well, most especially the magnetic Amell. Scripted well and making the very most of its limited means from a cinematography standpoint, ARQ is a film that is well worth your time. Recommended.

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Well worth checking out.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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Ireland’s Wars: Fenians

In the aftermath of the failed 1848 rebellion, many of those who had allied themselves to the Young Irelander movement and fought at Ballingarry fled abroad, or were pushed into an involuntary exile by British authorities that sought to drain the swamp of budding Irish nationalism without resort to the scaffold: some lessons had been leaned from 1798 anyway. All over Europe and the new world, would-be Irish revolutionaries settled, but maintained their desires to overthrow the traditional balance of power in their homeland. I’d like to take an entry, albeit a brief one, to talk about the entities that would be created from this feeling, and the people behind them.

Two of these were James Stephens and John O’Mahony.

O’Mahony was a Limerick man, whose father and uncle had fought in 1798. A writer and scholar of some means, he had joined the Repeal movement in 1843 but became unhappy with the direction Daniel O’Connell was taking fast, joining up with the Young Irelander faction and then taking part in the events of 1848. That meant he had to leave Ireland, and it was Paris where he ended up, living in poor conditions and supporting himself through translation work, before travelling on to New York to join other Irish nationalists.

There, O’Mahony was a founder for what was dubbed the “Emmett Monuments Association”. As readers might recall, Robert Emmett had stated before his execution that he wanted no epitaph to be written for him until Ireland was a free nation. The Emmet Monuments Association was thus not what it said on the tin, but a secret society dedicated to the nationalist ideology.

The Association spread quickly throughout the Irish-American community, but ultimately was unable to make good on its own aims, which it actively sought by trying to make allies of Tsarist Russia, before and during the Crimean War. The old dream of getting one of Britain’s allies to aid an Irish insurrection was alive and well, but no more possible this time around, the war in Crimea ending before anything resembling a concrete alliance was close to being formed. The Monument Association faded away for a few years, its higher ranks agreeing that the time for action was simply not opportune. But things were progressing elsewhere.

James Stephens was a Kilkenny native, with a murky early life, who had become active in nationalist politics by his twenties. After 1848 he fled to Paris with John O’Mahony, but where O’Mahony eventually went to New York, Stephens stayed, becoming part of numerous secret societies in France with the aim of mastering the art of the conspiracy, unhappy with the way that 1848 had gone. In 1856 Stephens returned to Ireland and began organising with other nationalists, while keeping in touch with events and organisations in America.

In 1858, at the pressing of men like O’Mahony who was no longer satisfied with the set-up in the States, Stephens founded his own nationalist secret society, which would go on to dominate Irish revolutionary affairs and politics for nearly 70 years: the Irish Republican Brotherhood, or IRB. Shortly after, Stephens travelled himself to America, and played a part in O’Mahony’s corresponding organisation: the Fenian Brotherhood, named after the legendary army of Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhaill, the term at that point not carrying the negative connotation it has today (depending on who you ask).

Both were somewhat different from the Young Irelanders that had preceded them, as they openly operated under the idea that only a physical force revolution would give Ireland an independent government. There was no vagueness to what the IRB and the Fenians were offering. Stephens was also committed to the idea of social revolution going hand in hand with the political, realising that a vast amount of the Irish population was not currently waiting in line to support republican principles, but might be educated to that point if they could be effectively told what republican government could offer the working class.

While separated by an ocean, the two organisations were intractably linked from the moment of their genesis, to the extent that, in the popular consciousness, many fail to see any difference between them at all, both coming to carry the name of “Fenian” It is IRB, that being situated primarily in Ireland, that can be considered to be more important to Irish military history, it’s higher echelons and leadership containing some of the most important names that would figure in Irish affairs from the 1850’s to the 1920’s.

While it would take a while for the exact structure of the IRB to solidify, a structure did emerge, in line with other secret societies that Stephens had learned from. From the start, with its oaths of secrecy and attempts to limit knowledge between different strands, the IRB was locked in a battle with the constant threat of spies and informers. “Circles”, with commanding “Centres” were meant to act as separate cells, with the different levels kept strictly separate from each other to limit the possibility of discovery, but in practise, this didn’t quite work as planned.

The IRB spread rapidly, with branches and cells soon operating throughout the major cities of Britain, America and as far afield as Australia, essentially anywhere Irish nationalists had a tendency to gather. These branches operated independently in terms of recruitment, but interlinked with others when it was appropriate. And the organisation would continue to grow in the decade after its founding, refining its structure and preparing to strike blows all over the globe, not just in Ireland. Indeed, in many respects it was to America that the Fenians looked with the most hope, for both military and financial support, as the Irish revolutionary movement would continue to do so for some time to come.

But events in the United States, with its internal tensions pushing things to the breaking point, would overtake some of the leading members of the Fenian Brotherhood, and many other Irish besides. In 1861, the most terrible war in American history saw the Union split in two, and Irishmen would fight on both sides.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Continuing Tales From The Serenity RPG

Years and years ago, I had an idea. I can’t even remember where it came from now, but I remember scribbling down notes for possible use in a future story, only for it fall at the wayside. It was of a new war between the Alliance and the Browncoats culminating in one great terrible battle, on a planet called Salvation. Salvation was some kind of nature reserve planet, otherwise unexceptional, except for some dark terrible secret that it was hiding that both sides wanted. My notes were titled “Salvation’s Call”.

A while after, I came back to the idea when it came to the third and final part of the “Dave-verse”, a game simply dubbed “Firefly: Salvation”. Yet another new ship, but a crew made up nearly entirely of former players, but all in new roles. When we last left things, the new Independent Republic and the Alliance were at each others throats again, with no end to the fighting in sight. In the middle of it all was my new ship, with a crew of mercenaries willing to fight for one side or another.

The hook of this campaign was a new questing mission, based around an individual named Michael Udray and a famed lost ship, the Thanatos. Udray was a sort of neo-Da Vinci from the time of the Ark ships, who revolutionised various fields and was considered a sort of demi-God by cult followers. He and his ship vanished shortly after the new system was being colonised.

But then! A mysterious message is broadwaved throughout the verse from the, presumably, long-dead Udray, now taking on a kind of Hari Seldon role (guess what I had been reading at the time?). In it, Udray predicts that the galaxy is at war again, and further explains that he believes the galaxy will always be in a cycle of war and authoritarian domination. In order to snap humanity out of this cycle, Udray relates that he has come up with the ultimate weapon, one that will make war against whoever possesses it an impossible endeavour. Some tantalising clues here, some mystery there, you got yourself a plot!

So, the crew spent the first half of the game trying to find out where Udray’s Thanatos has been hidden, visiting temples dedicated to the man (one surrounded by herds of stampeding cloned mammoths, that was a favourite), scientific institutes founded by him, all while the war raged around. The crew were soon back in the books of one Donald Mason – now a slightly more capable Colonel, in charge of a revolutionary fast ship – and also interacting with a slimy agent named Colonel Enrich West.

All roads led to Salvation, imagined as the first planet of the new system that humanity actually landed on, one filled with forests, grasslands, giant spiders (another genetically modified abomination, meant to freak out one arachnophobic player) and the buried remains of the Thanatos. Both the Alliance and the Independents race to the planet upon discovering the secret, and a battle was fought, one where the Alliance, with the crews help, comes out on top. That leaves them free to dig up the Thanatos and uncover its secrets, which is two main things.

The first is a robotic intelligence named Michel, Udray’s last and, in his own mind, greatest creation, a true AI which uses holographic emitters to appear as human as possible. Michael would end up joining the crew as an NPC, helping them in their future adventures.

The second, and much more important, was the Planet Killers, Udray’s terrible weapon, essentially a sort of oxygen destroying nanomachine bomb, that has the capability to replace the entire atmosphere of any planet of Carbon Dioxide in just a few minutes. And the Alliance had their hands on a few of them. Then betrayal, as Colonel West has the crew arrested and takes possession of the “PK” weapons.

This was the mid-year finale, and again I launched into a Christmas break write-up of intervening time, which ended up being a universe-altering event of scope that even I look back on and grimace at. Long story short: the Alliance launch a PK at Boros, an Independent planet, killing the vast majority of its inhabitants. The Browncoats respond with numerous nuclear missile strikes on Alliance worlds, utilising new stealth ships. The Alliance do the same. And for a few weeks, the ‘verse reels from the literally billions of deaths, before a makeshift truce is announced.

Re-enter the crew, freed from custody and now tasked with helping a breakaway faction of the Alliance military, who are secretly trying to bring the war to a swift conclusion as bloodlessly as possible, by finding the remaining PK’s and stopping them from being used again, especially by the now rogue Enrich West, who appears to be genuinely psychopathic.

More going back and forth, with some interesting moments. I recall our resident medic going on a kill spree on-board the Carousel, a location I wanted to come back to at least once before I drew things to a close. I remember the crew visiting an irradiated zone looking for more information about how to build more PK weapons, and having to deal with desperate refugees. And all the while, Colonel West continued to machinate.

The finale involved a desperate chase to stop West from detonating another PK, this one on Hera, at the site of Serenity Valley. West was revealed to be the Captain of my very first crew, a very amoral guy who had just gone crazy, and was interested only in galactic destruction at that point. With the help of Donald Mason, West got put down, and the PK detonation was stopped, while the Independent faction got their hands on some of the weapons themselves. With that, the war came to a close, neither side wanting to continue a conflict where the other side had a weapon of such unimaginable power: essentially, a great Cold War in the making. The crew got their rewards, and all was well that ended well. Sort of.

I was somewhat mixed feeling about “Salvation”. Looking back, it was so far removed from what Firefly is that I might as well have called it “Bits of BSG, DS9 and Star Wars mashed together: Salvation” and I think that’s something that bothers me a tad. I was so lost in upping the ante at every turn that the game just lifted off from the kind of roots that made it a Firefly game in the first place.

On the other hand, the players all seemed to enjoy it, ad I had a lot of fun with concepts like Michael the robot, and Enrich West, the kind of characters I enjoyed playing around with. But with the conclusion of that game I realised that I needed to call a halt to proceedings on the Dave-verse, which was so far gone that it didn’t seem possible to continue it without moving into truly laughable territory.

If there were three things I learned about Gming that time around, it was these:

-You go big or go home, but, eventually, you can get way too big. Sometimes it’s better to rein in your grander instincts.

-Nothing works better at hooking players’ interest than classic, well-worn plot devices, like, say, a missing ship from centuries past, or a destructive new super weapon of terrible power.

-All good stories have an ending, it’s something I believe in very strongly. And half the trouble with endings is being able to recognise one, and stepping away when you reach that point.

Of course, I wasn’t done with Firefly, and in an RPG sense, I still haven’t finished. Next week, I’ll talk a bit about the once-offs I have been a part of that involved the Firefly setting, and the kind of stories I attempted through that more restrictive confine.

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Review: The Siege Of Jadotville

The Siege Of Jadotville

Trailer

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I never thought I’d see the day…

Believe you me, this is one of the most surprising films I have come across ever. The story of the Irish peacekeepers at Jadotville is one that is bizarrely unknown even in Ireland, and the idea that the new movie-making behemoth that is Netflix would be interested in bankrolling such a production seems so crazy that since the moment this film was announced I have expected it to vanish into development/pre-production hell at any time. But here we are, and with one of the industry’s breakout stars in the lead to boot. Is The Siege Of Jadotville every inch the epic war film it appears to be, a suitable tribute to the heroism and dutiful service of those men engaged? Or is it too much, too grand an effort, that undercuts the very events it is trying to faithfully depict?

1961: the breakaway province of Katanga threatens the safety of the newly independent nation of the Congo, and the rich mineral resources relied upon by the world’s superpowers. The UN sends a force to keep the peace, among them the untested Irish troops of Commandant Pat Quinlan (Jamie Dornan), stationed at the isolated and vulnerable Jadotville position. When they come under an attack from rebel forces led by battle-hardened French mercenaries, A Company must deal with both the overwhelming enemy numbers in front of them, and the uncaring incompetence of UN official Conor Cruise O’Brien (Mark Strong) behind.

Where to start? The context of this film is an interesting one. The Irish Defence Forces are just a background detail at times, in the overall tapestry of the public service, little noticed by the wider citizenry unless it’s to point out some problem. A film about its exploits 55 years ago always has the potential to turn into something approaching propaganda. But curiously enough, The Siege Of Jadotville doesn’t frame itself directly about the Irish Defence Forces, at least not initially, choosing it’s prologue to be a glimpse at the conflict that drew them into the Congo, with the death of Patrice Lumumba at the hands of Katanga’s newly declared leader Moise Tshambo. The only white man present is a sneering operator of a mining company, who barely has any lines in the film at all. The point is made quickly, that the story we are about to see might be about white men, but it is one of intrusion on a problem deeper and more troublesome than they can contemplate dealing with, a notion Pat Quinlan later struggles with. It was unexpected bit of depth and understanding in the film-maker, the largely unblooded Riche Smyth, and the first hint that what he had put together passed muster.

As a war movie, The Siege Of Jadotville succeeds brilliantly. It’s exciting without being a cartoon, it’s emotionally impactful without being sentimental and maudlin. It depicts the realities of combat in such a time and place with rigid faithfulness to the accounts of those that were there and, in my eyes, the story being told loses nothing for that. The terrible irony is that the extraordinary nature of the details is bound to leave those less educated about the real-life events rolling their eyes at what they are seeing: no Irish soldier died? The UN and the Irish command stopped answering the phone rather than acknowledge the disaster? The whole affair was brushed under the carpet? Yeah right.

That’s what a lot of people will say. Which is a shame, because The Siege Of Jadotville is extraordinary true to the events that it depicts, save a few moments late on when the need for Hollywood-esque big bangs becomes appropriate. Such accuracy is rare in a film of this type, and should be commended. Yet, it is also fair to say that Smyth depicts the real events in such a light that they don’t appear overly framed or stilted, as might easily have been the case.

As an Irish movie, The Siege Of Jadotville also succeeds wonderfully, evoking memories of the same kind of tone in its Irish characters as the works of John Michael McDonagh: that kind of fatally optimistic, brutally sarcastic and “lets-get-on-with-it-then” attitude infects most Irish characters, in a good way, bringing to life dialogue that might otherwise have seemed hokey, and allowing an audience – an Irish audience anyway – really connect with characters that might otherwise have been utter throwaways. While The Siege Of Jadotville leaves plenty of time for other figures in the larger story – right down to a brief cameo from Charles De Gaulle himself – it’s placing the Irish front and centre after that opening.

The set-up is simple, but somewhat aggrandising if I am being honest: the production team wants you to think that one wrong move by Irish peacekeepers and the US and USSR will be slinging nukes at each other, which was, in my opinion, unlikely. The situation in the Congo is treated largely as the UN trying to stop the Americans and the Soviets from tearing the place apart, and little attention to paid to, say, the extraordinary recklessness of the Belgian withdrawal from the country without any effort to prop it up to stand on its own. It’s like they thought the story of Jadotville couldn’t do the job in terms of tension, and maybe it won;t for non-Irish audiences.

The diplomatic side of things is dominated by Mark Strong as Irish writer/UN official/politician Conor Cruise O’Brien, whose family will probably squirm if they bother seeing this depiction. To say that O’Brien is slated in Strong’s performance and the film’s dialogue would be an understatement. The most charitable way to describe his tenure in the Congo, as one puts it later, is that he’s an academic “who thinks the world will stop while he thinks about it”. More harshly, O’Brien comes across as dangerously inept, cowardly and reckless when it comes to the lives of the people he commends and the people he is supposed to be protecting.

It isn’t that any of it is inaccurate either, but things might have been better presented with someone other than Strong in the lead role. He just doesn’t seem up for it at all, a by the numbers portrayal from the Englishman, who struggles to inject any kind of humanity or real emotion in O’Brien’s words and actions, not helped by a number of not so great scenes, like a rather pointless meeting with Tshambo around the halfway point. It might have been better if O’Brien and the UN leadership were completely absent from the story.

Much better is the central narrative, and much better is Dornan in the role of Quinlan. While a fair proportion of his time and energy seems to have been put into getting his native northern twang to conform to the Kerry brogue of Quinlan, Dornan generally is decent, imbuing the Commandant with the right kind of quiet dignity, grace under fire and concern for the men under his command, in the kind of stiff-upper-lip fashion that suits a portrayal of those instincts in a military man. His personal journey mirrors that of nearly every Irish character in uniform: to quote his wife before he leaves, “Don’t you want to find out if you’re as good as you think you are?”

Quinlan is an untested leader, his main support is an untested sergeant, his soldiers are all untested infantry from an untested army, to that point only occupied by the Emergency and whatever minor operations undertaken against the IRA. And characters diverge when it comes to what happens when the bullets start firing. Some, like Sgt Prendergast, ably played by a brilliant Jason O’Mara, rise to the challenge and become the sort of soldiers you’d follow anywhere. Some, like Quinlan make mistakes but learn quickly and get better fast. Others, like General McEntee back at HQ, fail miserably, not just as leaders, but as human beings, freezing up when the situation starts moving beyond their control.

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Strong is the film’s key weakpoint.

Arranged against Quinlan and the Irish is Tshombe, played by Danny Sapani, who pops up in a few scenes to remind us of the higher stakes, without ever really seeming like he needs to be in the movie after the opening scene, and Guillaume Canet as an Falqez, a French mercenary commander. Some will surely balk at the predominantly black Congolese rebel army being ordered around by a white European, but accuracy is accuracy: Canet is good as the mercenary, who has a rather delicious if only slightly forced verbal showdown with Quinlan in a bar early on, icily noting that the Irish have never fought a war (ahem, as an independent nation anyway) before wondering why Quinlan has his men digging trenches. While Canet’s active role in proceedings is rather blunted as the fighting starts, he’s still an addition that adds something to the opposing side.

The actual fighting, which as noted is depticted with startling accuracy to the historical record, is a very good exercise in gradual escalation, that keeps things from ever getting boring even as we stay rigidly locked on the same few trenches and buildings. The rebels start off with rifles and machine guns, then later comes snipers, then mortars, then air power, while the Irish become ever more cut off and isolated, as the bungling command finds themselves unable – and unwilling – to help them to the very best of their ability. Smyth hooks all of this in place with simple characterisation for a few of the soldiers who are fighting, so throwaway in some respects that I don’t even remember their names, but still memorable in other ways: the sniper who draws first blood, the private who wonders at the euphoric rush of combat, the radioman’s growing frustration, the mortar operator’s glee at finding a target, a group of men facing the perils of bullets and snakes along with the bawdy soldiers talk typical of such a unit. The Siege Of Jadotville doesn’t have the time or the inclination to make most of the Irish soldiers depicted into fully rounded individuals, but does enough that the focus on them is not a wasted endeavour.

In terms of the fighting, what we’re learning are some key, but basic, lessons in warfare, namely that even the most inexperienced, outnumbered and out of their depth military force can prove an impassable obstacle if led well and with the right fortifications. The French and the Congolese under-estimate their foe so drastically that the taking of the UN outpost of Jadotville rapidly becomes a pyrrhic exercise when one compares the respective death tolls, and The Siege Of Jadotville portrays this stark reality very well. I won’t “spoil” the conclusion of the film, other than to say that the bittersweet outcome of A Company’s heroism is fittingly portrayed in such a way as to invoke fierce admiration towards those engaged at Jadotville, and fierce anger at those who saw fit to diminish the immense accomplishment of the fighting there.

On a visual level, the film is unexpectedly impressive. Largely filed in South Africa, the landscape of “the Congo” and of Ireland is effectively contrasted early on, and later the brown richness of the African scrubland is brought to the fore ably by cinematographer Nikolaus Summerer. The outpost in Jadotville is frequently glimpsed at from a distance, as if to signify to a greater extent its relative smallness, both in the overall vastness of the Congo, and in the larger geopolitical affairs that it found itself at the centre of.

The combat scenes are a visceral delight, with effective use of shaky cam, cutting and the frequently booming sound editing. A key inspiration is undoubtedly Cy Endfield’s Zulu, especially in the latter sections, but Smyth toes the line between homage and lifting rather well. No “Men of Harlech” moments here, but a respectful similarity in overall scope and presentation. Strangely enough, I was also struck by thoughts of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom Of Heaven in certain respects, especially in scenes where Quinlan and the French mercenary parley in the ground between the two armies, while Quinlan’s shell-shocked soldiers wait for news of what’s to come. Beyond all that though, there are some inspired visual cuts and shots: the opening fade in on the Congo, then Katanga, and then Jadotville forming the film’s title, the resident sniper of the company firing at a bell to warn the church going troops that an attack is starting or the hazy brown dust cloud that envelops some of the final moments, as A Company are pressed to their absolute utmost.

The script of Kevin Brodbin, adapted from the book by Declan Power, is more hit and miss. There are some really great exchanges and lines throughout, a personal favourite being Prendergast’s declaration that he will “charge you for every bullet that misses” as things get fraught, or Quinlan’s angry response when told to simply hold Jadotville by his hapless commander: “With what? A stiff pole?”. The aforementioned Irishness is visible in spades, from the distant father of one soldier insisting his son will be fine as his “mother will be praying for you, and sure doesn’t she have the direct line?” to the soldiers jokingly referring to Quinlan as St Patrick as he dumps snakes out of their trenches. And the entire screen I was watching the film with gave a very audible “Ohhh” as Quinlan baits the French mercenary who mocks his respect for Erwin Rommel: “Well, a German tactician overran your whole country in two weeks”.It’s a film that also knows the right time and place for profanity too, and that’s a rare enough thing in modern cinema.

On the negative side, many lines and exchanges seem stilted, a notable offender being any interaction between O’Brien and Quinlan. The two only converse over a radio line, and it’s painfully clear that there was no attempt to get the two even in the same room to give the exchange that sense of presence: in the final product, it’s obvious that the two parts of the scene were being filmed miles and weeks apart.

If there is a part of the production that falls down to the point of distraction, it’s the score by the otherwise accomplished Joseph Trapenese, which is so obviously “inspired” by the work of Hanz Zimmer as to be rather laughable at moments. Early scenes of Katanganese revolt are overlaid with beats straight from Batman Begins, while later action scenes resonate to something similar to “Mombasa” before the notes of “Time” intercut right at the end. It’s really very brazen, and odd to hear.

I was expecting The Siege Of Jadotville to be a tribute to the peacekeeping ethos that Ireland has so readily and willingly signed up for, but in the end it really wasn’t: the film slates much of the UN and its manner of running such operations, and baldly states the probable truth that it would have been happier if everyone at Jadotville had been killed fighting to the last man. It also isn’t as much of a tribute to the Irish Defence Forces as I thought it would be, or to the armies of other small nations that struggle to exist in a world where their service is often sneered at by people who ignorantly suppose they serve no purpose. Indeed, the larger entity of the Irish Defence Forces, through General McEntee and those who allowed his mean-spirited, cowardly and indefensible deflection of A Company’s achievements to stand, the film paints a rather negative picture of.

Instead, as stated at its conclusion, The Siege Of Jadotville is for the “Jadotville Jacks” alone. These 150 men volunteered to serve at the behest of the UN, put their lives on the line in the carrying out of that mission, and received nowhere near their just reward for doing so. If this film does nothing else, it will hopefully be the final demolishing of the wall of ignorance that has been raised up around the events of Jadotville, allowing those who fought there, still living and those since passed, to be properly and fully honoured for what they did in the service of peace.

And The Siege Of Jadotville does plenty else besides. It tells an engaging story that balances the experience of the Irish and the Congolese as well as it can. With a glaring exception, it features a good cast doing good work. With the exception of the lazy score, the film triumphs in its production details, most notably its cinematography. And the script generally sparkles, with all of the wit, courage and wisdom that one would expect from such a tale and from such characters. The Siege Of Jadotville is an unlikely movie of an unlikely event. It’s a miracle it got this far. But thank God that it did. Highly recommended.

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An excellent watch.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

Posted in Irish Defence Forces, Reviews, TV/Movies, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ireland’s Wars: The Crimea

Amid all of my looking at the rebellions and agrarian violence in Ireland, and the continuing role of the Irish in conflicts overseas, I have yet to really took a look at the continuing presence of Irishmen in the British military, through both the “named” regiments of Irish origin, and the masses of soldiers in just about every British military unit that were ether Irish born or Irish descended. The 1850’s, dominated by the Crimean War, seems as god a place as any to turn back to this aspect of Irish military history.

The origins of the Crimean War are complicated, even more than normal for a European conflagration. At the heart of it, at least initially, were the rights of the Christian minority in the Holy Land, then under the control of the Ottoman Empire, a long time political behemoth of eastern Europe and the Middle-East, that was well into a long decline that would culminate with its collapse in World War One over 70 years later. The “Sick Man of Europe” struggled to protect itself both from internal divisions and the predations of its neighbours: Tsarist Russia, under Nicholas I and later his son, claimed responsibility and authority over Christianity in lands under nominal Ottoman control with a particular flashpoint being the status of religious sites in Jerusalem itself.

The Ottoman’s objected, and were backed up by a coalition of Britain and France, who wished to curtail Russian advancement in the Middle-East and the Balkans, fearful of such domination’s possible effect on the precarious balance of power that had been agreed by the “Concert of Europe” after the fall of Napoleon: the Crimean War would be the first major conflict of European powers since Waterloo. After many years of simmering resentment, anti-Russian feeling throughout western Europe and numerous incidents, war was declared in October of 1853. While there would be numerous theatres, from the Balkans to the Baltic to the Caucasus, the conflict is primarily known for the campaigns fought on the Crimean peninsula.

And the Irish were there in force. Over a third of the British Army was Irish at the time, and up to 30’000 or so Irish soldiers probably served in the campaigns, as infantry, cavalry, sailors, engineers and even military police, drawn from the ranks of the Irish Constabulary. Three named Irish regiments, all of them cavalry, fought in the Crimean War, and all saw their most notable service in one of the most infamous clashes in British military history.. The invasion of the Crimea by a combined British/French and Ottoman force had in its design the capture of Sevastopol and the neutralisation of the Russian Black Sea fleet. It was in September of 1854 that this force landed: after victory in the Battle of the Alma, the allied forces settled in for a siege of Sevastopol, that would drag on for a miserable 11 months, the soldiers the victims of strategic muddling by a succession of poorly chosen commanding officers.

While Sevastopol was surrounded, fighting continued elsewhere on the peninsula, as other Russian forces attempted to disrupt and drive back the invaders. In late October of 1854, a Russian Army made a move on the British supply base of Balaclava, resulting in a battle that saw all three Irish cavalry regiments called into action.

Balaclava unfolded in three distinct phases. In the first, a massive Russian infantry advance swamped and overran the initial lines of defence on the hilly ground around the port, that were manned by ill-equipped and largely untested Ottoman units. In the second, the Russian assault was blunted by the much hardier British infantry, armed with the most modern military equipment and with arguably the world’s best training, which made them the “thin red line” of legend, that very moniker coming from the stand of the 93rd Highland Regiment at Balaclava. And the third phase, which ended the battle, was a succession of British cavalry attacks.

The first was by the Heavy Brigade, which we have talked about before for its service at Waterloo. Among it’s number were the 4th Irish Dragoon Guards, first raised during the Monmouth Rebellion, that had later seen service in both the War of the Two Kings and the 1798 Rebellion, and the famed 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons. Their charge up the north valley around Balaclava was, due to the size of the horses and the weight of the equipment their riders carried, more of a brisk trot before contact with enemy calvary. The 6th were engaged on the left of the advance, and the 4th, crying “Faugh A Ballagh” as they went, struck home on the right. It was the 4th that had more success: despite their numerical superiority, the Russian cavalry were no match for their British counterparts, who had some of the best horses in the world in their number, many of them born and bred in Ireland. In roughly ten minutes or so of combat, the Russian horse were hacked to pieces or forced to ride backwards, the 4th braking through and finding themselves able to cords from flank to flank.

Watching the events from close-by were the more nimble Light Brigade, which counted among their number the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars. They could have made complete the victory by joining the pursuit of the scattered Russian cavalry, but stayed rigidly still, their commander, the Earl of Cardigan, claiming to have been following strict orders in doing so. The Light Brigade’s moment would come shortly after.

The cause for what occurred has long been disputed, but amounts to little more than the sad tragedy of vague orders, handwritten by the overall British commander, Lord Raglan, being misunderstood by their recipient, the Lord Lucan, who was in overall command of the cavalry. Raglan wanted his cavalry to advance against a specfic Russian position in the Causeway Hills, where they had previously captured artillery positions, but meant for them to do so carefully and with infantry support: his orders to Lucan however, essentially told him to move immediately, without being clear about where he was to attack. And so Lucan ordered the Light Brigade to charge through to the top of the north valley, despite the Russian artillery positions in front and on both flanks, having misunderstood the exact target.

The Light Brigade went into two lines, with the 8th Hussars in the second. As immortalised by Alfred Tennyson’s famous poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, their action was a catastrophe, as Russian round and canister short, as well as rifle fire, tore into them from every angle. Lord Lucan was supposed to lead the Heavy Brigade in support behind, but balked when he saw the carnage, refusing to send his other horse into such a quagmire.

Despite the intense fire, the Light Brigade did actually manage to reach their objective, and temporarily scattered the Russian horse on the heights and engage the artillerymen defending the guns. But as soon as their losses became clear, they became easy targets for the rallying enemy cavalry, and were forced to break out and head back the way they had came, under fire all the while.

After an operation lasting 20 minutes, a third of the entire Light Brigade were casualties, with over half of its horses dead. The recriminations for what had occurred would last years and never receive any kind of closure: as for Balaclava, the losses inflicted on the Light Brigade brought the battle to a stuttering halt, as the stunned British refused to contemplate further offensive action. The Russians would thus claim Balaclava as a victory, thought they failed to completely bottle up the British supply position.

The war would continue on, with allied victory at the November Battle of Inkerman allowing them mostly free reign to continue the Siege of Sevastopol, which itself ended with the surrender of the city the following September, after several costly assaults and numerous bombardments. With the completion of the campaign objections, the war came to a surprisingly rapid close: the Russians, fearful of a grand allied invasion of their core territory from the west, sued for peace, which was to the preference of the main allied powers, Britain and France, whose citizens were turning against the ever-lengthening war. In the resulting Treaty of Paris, Russian gave up its military position in the Black Sea. Somewhere in the region of 600’000 men had been killed in the course of the fighting.

The Crimean War is remembered today, outside of events like Balaclava, for the pioneering aspects of military life that first reared their heads there: with the hospital services of women like Florence Nightingale, or in the journalistic exploits that made the conflict one the most vividly reported in history, with war correspondents bringing news of battles to mass produced newspapers at home within a rapid amount of time.

But it should also be remembered as yet another part of the British Army’s worldwide commitment that heavily involved Irish soldiers and Irish regiments. It was far from the only one in the 19th century, a period when the British Empire’s military needs stretched far beyond European clashes.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Even More Tales From The Serenity RPG

When the time came for me to run my second campaign, two years after my first (I had run a successful Buffyverse campaign in-between), I knew I would have to do a few things differently. I set to work writing down long-term plans for a continuous narrative, one that would take Joss Whedon’s vision and tear it to shreds. I was, at the time, hardcore into Battlestar Galactica, and that’s what my Firefly RPG’s took the most of their inspiration in tone and theme from, becoming games of spaceborne action, political manoeuvring and life and death struggles involving the entire human race. In recognition of my players inevitable amorality – something any GM will agree with and lament – I titled this second of three campaigns with a shared universe “Big Damn (Anti) Heroes”.

Things started out simply enough: a new crew, a new ship and some adventures to go on, a mix of my own ideas and some official adventures that had been published recently, that were good for a once-off and that I did everything I could to tie into my main narrative. Sometimes this was as simple as swapping one villain for another. The narrative was something fairly large in scope, and involved one of Firefly’s best known bits of universe padding. “Shan Yu” is just an historical dictator that Book and Niska offhandedly mention in the episode “War Stories”, but I saw the opportunity for me to do with him.

In all this I was inspired by a few select bits of fan-fiction writing I had happened upon in my constant scrolling across the internet for Firefly related things. One story I read envisioned Serenity getting involved in a hunt for the warlord’s lost treasure, stored inside a gigantic warship dubbed the Sun-Tzu, a ship that held dark secrets. I latched on to that idea, and decided my crew would be hired by a nefarious Tong to find the same thing.

The standard quest outline, whereby a party go out to find numerous objects that will lead them to a singular object, will often make gamers groan with its apparent mundanity, but it’s popular for a reason: you can take any kind of story and wrap it around such a template. In looking for the locations of the Sun-Tzu the crew got to go on a lot of varied adventures: duelling with nobility, investigating murders, escaping from Alliance prison colonies, lots of different things here and there. And, eventually, they found just what they were looking for.

Big Damn (Anti) Heroes was a game where I first began to understand that the in-jokes and mythology that the players make themselves is just as important to the overall quality of an RPG as anything else. To give an idea of what I mean, I’ll always remember fondly one incident, wherein the crew were preparing an escape from the aforementioned Alliance prison. They had found out that the passcode to get past the guarding ships was “Hackleback Rimrakers 76”. Later, as they prepared their departure and discussed the final details, one crewmember hand-waved away the passcode requirements, and I paraphrase “It’s Huckleberries or something”. I had an instant vision of missiles streaming towards the Firefly as the crew screamed “Huckleberries, huckleberries!” desperately into the radio, and I took me a while, and the others, to stop laughing. This is the kind of thing that loses all of its punch in just writing it down, but it’s what I’m talking about.

This was a game I was enjoying the hell out of, but I was aware that I could be badly tripped up by my next step, which was a game-changer inspired by ideas from more fan-fiction: the resurrection of Shan Yu himself, or rather a clone, kept in cryogenic storage onboard the Sun Tzu along with a troop of deadly bodyguards. The crew unwittingly woke Sun Tzu up, and the stage was set for something really large scale.

During the Christmas break, I made daily updates to a log describing a six month period when the crew were imprisoned by the Alliance and the ‘verse went to hell in a hand-basket. Shan Yu, with the aid of his gigantic Death Star-esque battleship, essentially resurrected a defunct Empire based somewhat on the Japanese shogunate, that proceeded to human wave its way across a bunch of planets, wrecking the Alliance forces through sheer attrition. With the Purplebellies distracted and sucking every last resource they can spare away from the rim, Browncoat guerillas and others rise up with no opposition, taking over a bunch of places and eventually declaring an new “Independent Republic of Planets” (it had to be that way, think of the acronyms if I moved some words around?). In the space of a few weeks, I took the Alliance dominated universe and turned it into a three-way dance between wildly different factions, all taking aim at each other. And then to really mess things around, I had the crew help negotiate a secret truce between Alliance and Independent, so that they could both take on Shan Yu’s genocidal Tigers.

What emerged from there was something more like a spy drama than a Firefly tale, as the crew was conscripted into being the Alliance’s undercover strikeforce, breaking into Shan Yu’s secret police headquarters, fighting huge space battles, engaging inv ritual reality simulations of a Shan Yu victory, and trying to maintain the fragile peace with the Independents. In that, they were helped by Donald Mason, who might be my favourite NPC ever: a sad sack junior officer of Alliance military intelligence, who first passed himself off as a mysterious Colonel to get the crew to do things for him, and then found himself stumbling up the chain of command when the war came. This was much to the crews’ annoyance, as I played Mason up as a kind of lovable boob for most of the time, playing at being the dashing hero while being anything but.

Things came to a raging climax with the Battle of Eavesdown, when the Alliance and the Independents fought a gigantic brawl with invading Tigers on Persephone, with the crew right in the thick of it. The big space battle I had tried out earlier in the campaign was a bit of a bust, the intended experience lost amid trying to figure out the right kind of ship based combat rules. This ground based one was a bit better, and I hope I was able to capture a bit of the grandeur I was going for.

The good guys won, but they still had to take care of Shan Yu and his super-ship, accomplished by a daring commando raid and the sacrifice of one of the player characters (the player having left the campaign for work related reasons). One nuke in the engine later, and the Sun Tzu was burning up in orbit.

All that was left was for the final terrible confrontation with Shan Yu himself. That finale session has one of my favourite RPG moments, when one player had a samurai duel with Shan Yu’s head goon that I had been planning for ages. Only, it didn’t quite work out: said player botched his first dodge roll just as the bad guy aced his attack, and so had his spinal cord severed. Said bad guy died in a hail of crew generated gunfire, and the now paralysed samurai six-shooter found himself spending the rest of the assault on Shan Yu’s palace in a wheelchair…for around five minutes, before being sliced in half by minigun fire.

Shan Yu went down in a blaze of glory and the war come to a close, the crew heroes. But then the Independents launched a sneak attack on the Alliance the day after, and everything started up again. Quite the cliffhanger, if I do say so myself.

While I throw up my hands and say that Big Damn (Anti) Heroes wasn’t my most original work, it was still easily my favourite campaign. Everything just seemed to come together really well: the fun in the sessions, the intricacy of the plot and the big moments that popped in just the right way. If there were three things that I can say I learned, they would be:

-If the players are enjoying themselves in a session, even if it’s just with stupid jokes and poking holes in things, even the most far out plot can be excused.

-Eventually, you got to go big or go home when it comes to your plots: at least once you should try a galaxy spanning, universe altering narrative, because it can be immensely liberating, and fun, to do so.

-There are few greater joys in GMing then creating an NPC you love and getting to act out his evolution as time goes by. Donald Mason would return.

The third part of what my players generously described as the “Dave-verse” was yet to come, when I really went to to town on the ‘verse I had already messed up.

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Review: Anthropoid

Anthropoid

Trailer

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You can see it too right?

It feels like a very long time since I’ve actually watched Cillian Murphy in anything. I think it might actually have been his all too brief cameo in The Dark Knight Returns several years ago, and that’s something I really should try and rectify, because the man is one of the great Irish acting talents operating today. And relatively new on the scene, with no less bright a future, is Jamie Dornan, with international prominence through 50 Shades Of Grey and critical acclaim through the more home-grown avenue of the RTE/BBC drama The Fall. Two great Irish actors in one picture, what’s not to like? But the eyebrows might be raised by the premise of the film itself, the viewer wondering why it is that two Irishmen are playing two Czechoslovakian resistance fighters in World War Two? Was Anthropoid the riveting thriller I hoped it would be, or another Hollywood misstep when approaching the lesser known aspects of Nazi-occupied Europe?

Prague, 1942: Jozef (Murphy) and Jan (Dornan) are parachuted into their homeland by the Czech government-in-exile, meeting up with resistance head “Uncle” Jan (Toby Jones). Their mission is simple: Operation Anthropoid, the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the chief architects of the Final Solution and Czechoslovakia’s main oppressor. As their plans progress, Jozef and Jan are torn between their mission, fear of the inevitable retaliation if they succeed and their growing closeness to resistance members Marie (Charlotte Le Bon) and Lenka (Anna Geislerova).

This is a modern World War II thriller dressed up as an old-school type exercise, not unlike the same kind of espionage feel of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and the end result is a slow-boil narrative that builds to an unexpected crescendo, and then grimly spends the remainder of its time detailing the aftermath. In that, it has both its predictabilities and its surprises, but Anthropoid manages to avoid most of the pitfalls it could have tripped up in.

The rather intense Murphy, as the much more serious and dutiful Jozef, matches up very well with the slightly more carefree and romantic Jan, a kind of twisted odd couple who have to spend almost every scene they have in the movie in its each others company. A concentrated two-hander is the result, that border on a “bromance”, the homosexual sub-text not so much leaping as diving off the screen at certain moments. Well, kind off anyway. The military professionalism of their relationship early on, as they scramble from safe-house to safe-house, moves onto a more easy camaraderie as the planning for the assassination progresses, with an especially amusing moment developing as they prepare the bombs that will be thrown at the armoured cars transporting Heydrich around.

Sure, there are two romantic angles to play around with, but they are executed well enough without really damaging that key, central relationship: indeed, Jan’s love for Lenka is played very well as more of a wartime infatuation than anything truly serious, while Jozef’s stalled back and forth with the more icy Marie suits the character. Both actresses do fine work as the contrasting sides of romantic feeling during wartime, and I think that Lenka, the lone cast member of actual Czech origin among the principals, deserves special note. It brings the central conflict of the film into play rather nicely: is the assassination of Heydrich worth all of the lives it will take to get the job done?

The film chooses to explore this mostly on a personal level, which I think is it’s one key flaw. Jozef is so dead set on throwing away his life if it means Heydrich dies as well that you wonder why he doesn’t just strap some explosive to himself and walk into the targets car, while Jan, his determination thrown off almost immediately after arriving in Czechoslovakia during an encounter with two locals informants, seeks first any way to pull off the operation while keeping the assassins lives intact, and then openly starts to question the validity of the operation at all. While this is all well and good – Dornan’s and Murphy’s best moments come as Jan suffers a panic attack the night before the operation – the larger moral quandary presented in Anthropoid does not get the attention that I felt it deserved.

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Anthropoid balances its main action with two well executed romantic sub-plots.

That quandary is simply put: does the apparent moral imperative of resisting Nazi rule and its inherent evil outweigh the moral imperative of protecting the innocent lives that will suffer after every act of resistance? As the conspirators freely admit in the opening hour, they know that the Nazi hierarchy will never allow Heydrich’s death to stand unanswered, and those who will pay the price will be completely innocent men, women and children, who will be slaughtered as retribution.

The only real answer offered is that the strike at Heydrich offers hope, hope that a downtrodden Czechoslovakia, and Europe, badly needs: as a priest who helps the assassins late on outlines, he would’t be doing what he does if he didn’t believe men like Heydrich would be called to account one day (and the film has zero interest in humanising the German occupiers). Certainly, there’s a very serious case for Operation Anthropoid being more of a propaganda exercise on the behalf of the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile, an unseen force directing things from the relative safety from London, than a meaningful military strike. There’s a potentially fascinating cinematic debate to be had with that question.

But in the end, the moment passes: only one member of the Czech resistance actively opposes the plan for this reason, and is largely dismissed, vanishing around the half-way point of the narrative, while others oppose the plan more out of self-preservation than worries about the larger fate of Czechoslovakia. In the end, no one doubts the apparent necessity of peppering Heydrich’s staff car with a sten gun. It might have helped if Heydrich himself, and his many crimes, had more of a presence in the film, but he remains a distant, blurry figure for most of Anthropoid, which puts us more properly in the minds of the attackers, but does prevent a certain understanding of their actions from emerging.

The pacing of the film was an unexpected delight. You would think that the attempted assassination itself would be the climax, but instead it basically comes at the end of the second act, with the third devoted to the terrible, blood-soaked aftermath, when up to 15’000 Czech’s were slaughtered and the assassins themselves face into what appears to be a hopeless last stand inside a Prague Cathedral. If Anthropoid has moments of action, traditional WW2 action anyway, they appear only here, as the MP40’s rattle and the stielhandgrenades are thrown with abandon, and the whole thing is a magnetic depiction of true martial heroism, without hope of escape or victory. The point is belaboured a tad, especially if you’re the kind of person who knows beforehand how the story is going to end. In that sense, it reminded me a little of Valkyrie, but ultimately Anthropoid has enough going for it that I wasn’t shifting in my seat before the final credits rolled. The shaky cam technique is in full force throughout, but thankfully never truly passes into the realm of vomit-inducing.

A sense of despair infects a large part of this elongated final chapter, as characters we’ve come to admire pay the ultimate price, and Nazi brutality and inhumanity towards non-combatants come to the forefront, in a manner that calls The Pianist, Elser or Der Untergang to mind. It’s only here really that director Sean Ellis starts using symbolic cinematography and being a bit more transcendent with his film-making, as the harsh reality gives way to accepted endings: the rest of the film is a grim-grey affair in terms of its colouring and framing, the bleak streets of Prague and its richly brown apartment interiors dominating proceedings.

Anthropoid isn’t quite a Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and lacks the visceral action engagement of the Bourne franchise. But it is a solid production, with strong central performances from the two leads, backed up by an inventive and entertaining narrative structure. While Anthropoid doesn’t leave quite the mark on the consciousness that it could have, thanks to that shallowness in confronting the moral ambiguity of the Heydrich assassination, it’s far from the worst in the Secret War canon. Recommended.

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Well worth watching.

(All images are copyright of Bleeker Street).

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