DIR: Sean Ellis • WRI: Sean Ellis, Anthony Frewin • PRO: Sean Ellis, Mickey Liddell, Pete Shilaimon • DOP: Sean Ellis • ED: Richard Mettler • DES: Morgan Kennedy • MUS: Robin Foster • CAST: Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Harry Lloyd
Taking its sci-fi sounding title from the true-life operation code-name, WWII drama Anthropoid dramatizes the attempt to assassinate the Head of Nazi operations in Czechoslovakia, Reinhard Heydrich. The task was undertaken by Jozef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) – two agents working under the order of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile (situated in London). While planning the murder (at least in the film), they each became romantically involved with two local women, Lenka (Anna Geislerova) and Marie (Charlotte Le Bon).
Written and directed by Sean Ellis (The Broken, Metro Manilla), the film is an extremely taut affair. Ellis and his co-writer Anthony Frewin mine maximum tension out of every possible situation. For instance, one would expect the Czech government-in-exile’s orders would correspond with the views of the resistance fighters within Prague tasked with helping Jozef and Jan. However, this is not the case with the latter believing the operation is too risky and unnecessarily dangerous for all involved. It is only Jan Zelenka-Hajský (Toby Jones – wonderful), an elderly opposition leader dedicated to regaining Czechoslovakia’s freedom from within the country’s capital, that greenlights Jozef’s and Jan’s orders, leading to conflict not only between the Government and the resistance but also within the resistance itself.
The film’s expertly constructed overwhelming sense of dread is not only found in its script. It’s in the direction too. The slow but gripping build of the Anthropoid’s first half pays off brilliantly as the movie erupts into action following the assassination attempt. After this, it never takes its foot off peddle – creating an unrelenting thrilling pace cumulating in a long and brilliantly executed, final set-piece. Also, in terms of the action sequences, Ellis skilfully creates a sense of quiet and stillness before shattering it completely with the sounds of explosions and machine-gun fire.
Ellis, who also was cinematographer on the film due to his experience as a fashion photographer, fills his Prague setting with smog and mist. This creates a simultaneously beautiful but unsettling view of the occupied city where danger lurks behind every corner. Also as many critics have noted, the film’s daylight scenes have a yellow tint which recalls gazing at old faded photos of the era.
The performances are excellent by Murphy and Dornan – particularly with how they counter-balance each other. Murphy, as evident by his work on Peaky Blinders, is a master at portraying quiet strength and intensity. This is utilised well here as Josef is the more silent agent, who shows little emotion because he knows if he becomes attached to anyone it will be harder to carry out his mission. Meanwhile, Dornan’s performance is the most emotionally affecting I’ve ever seen him give. His tragic, softer character, prone to panic attacks, somehow retains a hope throughout that he, his friend and his new lover can find peace.
In terms of the romantic sub-plot, Murphy and Grislerova’s is far more interesting than Dornan’s and Le Bon’s. Grislerova matches Murphy’s unsentimental performance, as both their characters are equally world-weary and aware their futures are doomed. Le Bon is good too but she and Dornan are given less interesting material to work with as the bulk of Marie and Jan’s relationship takes place off-screen and what doesn’t is quite traditional.
Despite some awkward Chekhov’s gun-esque signalling of future events and a brief moment of sentimentality in the finale which clashes with the movie’s grittiness, Anthropoid is one of the most gripping dramas of the year. It’s utterly compelling, tense and exciting – all in equal measure.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Anthropoid is released 9th September 2016