It's very typical for a film to build up from the get go, only to completely unfold in the final stretch; other films are relentlessly engaging which only serves to jeopardise the ending, removing the intensity from the climax and earnestly underwhelming; occasionally, a film comes a long and starts (a little painfully) slowly, only to end in a blaze of glory that takes your breath away; Sean Ellis' Anthropoid absolutely falls into the latter and what one may see as a weakness at the beginning actually encourages the film's biggest strength later on. A number of films this year have been emotionally affecting (Eye In The Sky, Spotlight, Money Monster and, of course, Room), but few consider themes and pushes them as Anthropoid does.
In December 1941, two government agents from Czechoslovak - Jozef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) - are parachuted into their occupied homeland with a mission from Britain; assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the main architect of Nazi Germany's Final Solution regime, also known as 'the Butcher of Prague', who is responsible for the death of thousands of civilians. Along with other parachutists, the pair must find refugee and blend in to the occupied Prague but paranoia, loss and disloyalty ensues. Based on the real 'Operation Anthropoid', Heydrich's attempted assassination, the true to form picture is a heart-wrenching historical drama-thriller that documents the risks the heroes take.
Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan play two agents attempting to save their homeland from the increasing Nazi presence, offering understated performances where some may be tempted to exaggerate and lionise. Enhanced by the cinematography and muted pallets, which gives the film a distinctive period style and the shaky filmmaking which gives it a real-to-life, documentary style quality, these performances feel deeply honest and raw, not hiding behind typical Hollywood 'hero saves the day' tropes and characterisation; we see Kubis genuinely shaken with a gun in his hands and the desperation faced by Gabcik in the film's final moments of the film is genuinely moving, offering raw, human representations of the soldiers. Often, with Hollywood's love for superheroes, soldiers are given their own 'superpowers', but in this instance, they are ordinary humans fighting for their country, waiting on a ticking bomb and approaching their impending doom with honour, dignity and courage. They are not invincible and Anthropoid embraces this, never making them such, highlighting the sacrifice they make by giving their lives to their countries safety. The film also features an assorted strong supporting cast that we manage to feel connected to, despite their minor roles.
After the initial intensity of the first sequence, Anthropoid is deliberately slow in pace, burning quietly for a while before the whole can of gas lights up the scattered action in the second act before reaching the climax in the third. A introduced romantic sub-plot, one that many may dismiss at first, admittedly interrupts the momentum of the first act, holding it back from ever moving at a consistent pace, but is incredibly important as we progress. At the time, it feels unnecessary and unneeded, doing more harm than good, but by the time the third act begins, it is evident the importance of those initial scenes, humanising the characters and increase the intensity every step of the way. This structure prevents it from feeling predictable or formulaic, utilising quick editing techniques and cuts to add a sense of unease that only seeks to heighten the anxiety experienced by the audience heading for the two 'big' sequences of the films. The prolonged climax never feels short of being taut, tense and heart-wrenching, caused mainly by the way our investment in the two leads has been crafted through the film's 120 minutes: one moment in particular, in which a sound echoes between the two locations, followed by a single tear drop, is astonishingly beautiful and soul-destroying, with this almost silent moment speaking the loudest of friendship, pain and loss- more so than any bomb, gunfire or screaming. It's an image that will stay with me.
Dramatising the events of Operation Anthropoid offers a rich and gripping story to explore and its a surprise it hasn't been looked at much before, save for a few smaller films focusing on different aspects of the mission. Whilst its evident from the style and genre choices that this is a film set in the past, with wartime and Nazi iconography immediately setting the tone, Ellis seeks to reflect themes that many will recognise in a society that occasionally feels too eerily similar to the events of the film, if not directly in westernised cities and countries, than in the media. Disloyalty, family, friends, loss, paranoia, strength, patriotism and truth are each explored in their own subtle way throughout the film, offering morally-complex thoughts and notions throughout the film. One scene, in which a young lad is tortured before being reminded of his mother is blood-curdling and absolutely shocking twist, is not beyond what you can comprehend after hearing horror stories from similar areas devastated by war and extremism today. In silence, the words at the end of the film are displayed and followed with audible gasps from the audience, and while this is dramatised from our past, the moment is stops deeply affecting us is the moment we have lost touch it, and stopped learning from mistakes as we strive for a better future.
I can sit here and nit-pick this film for a few minor flaws - the sound is, in places, weak, some minor characters aren't well-defined, their aims aren't always clear and are difficult to follow. We are left with loose ends for some characters which is rather frustrating but even then, it is hard not to be affected by the tale told of Anthropoid. Shocking and sobering, it is a well acted period piece that will stay with you long after you leave the theatre, and deserves to be, for the true-life tale it tells. It's a difficult watch but a necessary one, and while admittedly one not everyone could stomach, I would deeply encourage them to experience it, for the story it tells of the brave soldiers involved needs to be heard.
Summary: Deeply affecting, powerful and sobering, Anthropoid is a difficult watch, but thanks to a strong direction, solid cast and recognisable themes, one that should be seen and understood to learn from.
Highlight: It's a tough watch, so 'highlight' isn't the best word, but the scenes singled out above, including the final act, will always stay with me.