(Czech Republic/UK/France - 2016)
Directed by Sean Ellis. Written by Sean Ellis and Anthony Frewin. Cast: Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Toby Jones, Charlotte Le Bon, Anna Geislerova, Harry Lloyd, Sam Keeley, Jiri Simek, Marcin Dorocinski, Jan Hajek, Alena Mihulova, Bill Milner, Pavel Reznicik, Vaclav Neuzil, Mish Boyko, Andrej Polak, Jan Budar, Roman Zach, Detlef Bothe. (R, 120 mins)
It's probably difficult to bring anything new to the WWII genre after 70+ years worth of movies, and ANTHROPOID doesn't really try. Despite a title that sounds like some kind of ALIEN spinoff, the film tells the story of Operation Anthropoid, the 1942 plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich--#3 in the Nazi chain of command after Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, and who chaired the Wannsee Conference that laid the groundwork for the "Final Solution"--in Czechoslovakia. It's an event that's been depicted in movies going back to when it was still breaking news in 1943, as Fritz Lang's HANGMEN ALSO DIE! and a pre-tearjerker Douglas Sirk's HITLER'S MADMAN were loose chronicles of Operation Anthropoid filtered through the lens of patriotic, crowd-pleasing Hollywood war effort propaganda. The 1964 Czech film ATENTAT and 1975's OPERATION DAYBREAK (from three-time 007 director Lewis Gilbert) also told the Anthropoid story. Director/co-writer/cinematographer Sean Ellis (CASHBACK, THE BROKEN, METRO MANILA) is able to bring more bleak brutality to this than films from the 1940s could and, contrasted with the glossy feel of big WWII epics, his use of handheld shaky-cam brings a gritty, in-your-face immediacy to the proceedings despite frequent overuse. While ANTHROPOID doesn't reinvent the wheel as far as WWII programmers go, and there's a couple of hoary cliches and obvious symbolism in the finale (a candle extinguishing just as someone's life ends? Really?), it's well-acted, the period detail is excellent, and Ellis nails several intense and nerve-shredding set pieces throughout.
Cyril and Methodius Cathedral in Prague, where they remain undetected for two weeks until Czech Resistance member Karel Curda (Jiri Simek), fearing for the safety of his family, rats out the Moravecs, which leads to the Nazi siege of the cathedral on June 18, 1942, where the seven Czech soldiers--three in the church and four down below in the cavernous crypt--manage to hold off the Germans for six hours.
COLOR ME KUBRICK, don't really delve too much into the characters other than what we need to know. The filmmakers make a concerted and unflinching effort to stay close to the facts, even if it paints the heroes in negative light. Murphy's Gabcik is driven and obsessed, while Dornan's Kubis is more emotional and prone to choking at clutch moments, such as an early anxiety attack that prevents him from shooting a fleeing traitor and his allowing himself to fall in love with Marie (cue a disdainful Gabcik inevitably calling him out with a "Why are we here?" lecture). They also don't shy away from depicting the kinds of psychological and physical torture the Resistance members endured, particularly in the horror inflicted on young Ata Moravec. There isn't much here you haven't seen in any number of WWII movies, but it's a riveting story and the pace is relentless. Considering the season and the depressing glut of franchises, brands, and regurgitated remakes out there right now, ANTHROPOID is a welcome bit of grown-up counterprogramming that probably won't get much attention in theaters, but will undoubtedly find a larger audience on streaming and cable down the road.