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.
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.
(All images are copyright of Bleeker Street).