Sunday, August 14, 2016

In Theaters: ANTHROPOID (2016)

(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.

Parachuting into German-occupied Czechoslovakia as part of the Anglo-Czech Allied operation, Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) meet with Czech Resistance leaders Uncle Hajsky (Toby Jones) and Ladislav Vanek (Marcin Dorocinski), who arrange for them to be sheltered by the Moravecs (Alena Mihulova, Pavel Reznicik) and their 15-year-old violin prodigy son Ata (Bill Milner). Their orders are to assassinate Heydrich (Detlef Bothe), the head of Nazi forces in Czechoslovakia, and while the plan is in the works, they manage to blend into their surroundings by being seen with two local women, Marie (Charlotte Le Bon) and Lenka (Anna Geislerova), who are also part of the Resistance. When word comes down in the final days of May 1942 that Heydrich is being reassigned to France, Gabcik and Kubis immediately go forward with the plan on May 27, with the help of other officers and Resistance members. It almost immediately flies off the rails when Gabcik steps in front of Heydrich's car to open fire and his machine gun jams, leading to an explosive battle erupting on a busy Prague street. Kubis blows up Heydrich's car with a bomb and the Nazi takes a few rounds in the ongoing crossfire. Heydrich would die from his injuries a week later, but in the immediate afterward of the execution of Operation Anthropoid, Gabcik, Kubis, and the others are under the impression that they failed. Upon Heydrich's death, an enraged Hitler sends more troops into Czechoslovakia. The hunt for Heydrich's killers begins at Lidice, where any male over the age of 16 is executed and the women and children are rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Gabcik, Kubis, and five other Czech officers take refuge in a crypt underneath the 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.

Ellis' handling of the attempt on Heydrich's life on a crowded street and the final siege at the cathedral are masterfully done. It's edge-of-your-seat suspense, even when you know the outcome. Prior to that, Ellis and co-writer Anthony Frewin, a trusted member of Stanley Kubrick's inner circle from 1968's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY to 1999's EYES WIDE SHUT, and the writer of 2007's 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.

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