Sterling performances and accomplished filmmaking drive Sean Ellis's dramatic retelling of the World War II plot to assassinate an SS Officer in Czechoslovakia
The history books are full to bursting with stories ripe for cinematic adaptation, and director Sean Ellis (Metro Manila) has struck on a suitably gripping one in Anthropoid; the eponymous World War II operation to assassinate high ranking SS officer General Reinhard Heydrich, who was overseeing a reign of terror in German-occupied Czechoslovakia.
While this has inspired several previous works including Hitler's Madman (Douglas Sirk, 1943) and Operation: Daybreak (Lewis Gilbert, 1973), this screenplay, by Ellis and Anthony Frewin, focuses on two Czech soldiers who parachuted into the country to undertake the mission. Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis (Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan speaking, like the rest of the cast, in accented English) are taken in by the local resistance and plot their course with diligence and determination, risking detection – and their lives – at every turn.
There is no doubt that these men and women are heroes in the truest sense, but Ellis ensures that they are also human and, crucially, fallible. Jose and Jan carry the psychological scars of battle in their shaking hands, grim-set faces and outright fear; after falling for local comrade Marie (Charlotte Le Bon), Jan pleads for a last minute reprieve. It's a constant reminder of the human cost of warfare and, presented on such an intimate canvas, is devastatingly poignant.
Driven by its compelling performances, Anthropoid is also a solid piece of filmmaking. Its blanched colour palette and detailed production design encapsulate a sense of both history and helplessness. Similarly, Ellis – who also acts as cinematographer – has chosen to use a Super 16mm, lightweight Arriflex camera, which gives a suitable grittiness and texture to the visuals while also allowing him to get right in the middle of the action.
Nowhere is this more effective than in the film's frenetic climax, where the seven men held a cathedral against the Nazi army for seven hours. As bullets fly and mortars explode it's a blistering contrast to the more restrained nature of all that has come before, a relentless cacophony of violence during which, despite knowing the outcome, you can't help but root for the heroes to prevail. As the helplessness of the situation reveals itself, however, the din fades into classical music which plays over the last desperate moments; a powerful conclusion to a film that, while fairly traditional in its approach, is a fitting homage to these extraordinary men.
Wide release from Fri 9 Sept.