‘Anthropoid” recounts a true story of great heroism during World War II, as well as suffering and loss on a huge scale. It’s intensely moving, so much so that reviewers may hesitate to mention some significant flaws.
The film depicts the 1942 plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the top Nazi official who oversaw the brutal occupation of Czechoslovakia, and was also one of the main planners of the Holocaust. The story focuses on two men, Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, who are parachuted into Czechoslovakia and make their way to Prague to kill Heydrich with help from the local resistance, which has been greatly weakened through the murderous actions of the SS.
The tale is told in strictly chronological fashion, which contributes to the movie’s problems. Once the action begins, “Anthropoid” (the name of the actual operation) is intense and compelling, both in showing the attack itself and its deadly fallout.
The issue is what precedes this material, the extended story of how Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Kubis (Jamie Dornan) make contact with the resistance, avoid the Nazis and work out the details of how they will kill Heydrich.
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Even in this earlier segment, there is worthwhile material, including arguments over whether the mission is worth carrying out, given the extremely dire consequences likely to follow. Orders to carry out the plot come from the Czech government in exile in Great Britain, and some in the resistance wonder if the decision-makers are fully aware of conditions under the Nazis.
Unfortunately, much of the film’s first hour is undermined by stilted dialogue delivered in thick accents straight out of, well, a war movie. There’s even a bit of romantic interest involving two young women partisans, who are attractive but, naturally, turn out to be very efficient fighters. It’s boilerplate stuff that belongs to a lesser film, not one that was, according to its press material, meticulously researched for historical accuracy.
Murphy’s Gabcik is the more hard-nosed of the two leads, and sometimes has to get tough with Dornan’s Kubis, to stiffen the latter’s spine. Toby Jones has some good moments as one of the top resistance members. But more than a couple of the actors seem simply overwrought, and you have to wonder how all this got by director Sean Ellis.
Where Ellis does succeed is in establishing the monstrosity of the Nazi occupiers, the terror they engender in the population, and the courage of the few remaining resistance members. You understand why they equipped themselves with cyanide capsules in case of capture. For the same reason, you also will feel no surprise –horror, yes, but not surprise – at learning the extent of the reprisals the Nazis undertook after the attack on Heydrich.
The bravery of the men and women who carried out this exceedingly costly action can’t be doubted. But they would be better served if the film had a less lugubrious first hour.
Cast: Jamie Dornan, Cillian Murphy
Director: Sean Ellis
Rated: R (for violence and some disturbing images)
Opens: Friday, Aug. 12