Dir: Sean Ellis. Czech Republic, UK, France. 2016, 120 mins


The commendably unpredictable career of writer/director Sean Ellis (Cashback, Metro Manila, etc) takes another left field turn with Anthropoid, an old-school salute to World War Two derring do. The story of the Czech resistance fighters who assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, the Butcher Of Prague, is a sober, restrained production that ultimately delivers in a visceral, bullet-strewn climax.

It is a testimony to the film’s careful construction and honest intentions that you have become so engaged in the fate of its characters.

Films as diverse as Defiance (2008), The Book Thief (2013) and The Monuments Men (2014) have shown the challenge of attracting modern cinemagoers to World War Two stories. Yet Anthropoid could successfully swim against that tide if it can connect with audiences hungry for tales of real life heroism rather than comic book escapades. A US release through Bleeker Street is set for August following the film’s world premiere as the opening night at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festivval.

Heydrich was the highest ranking Nazi to be assassinated during the war. The story has inspired countless film versions, most notably Douglas Sirk’s Hitler’s Madman (1943), Jiri Sequens’ Atentat (The Assassination) (1965) and Lewis Gilbert’s Operation: Daybreak (1975). Anthropoid is one of two films on the subject this year with Cedric Jimenez’s adaptation of Laurent Binet’s novel HHhh to follow.

Ellis places his emphasis on the two men parachuted back into Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) with orders to kill Heydrich. And this is a film fascinated by the emotional wear and tear which war inflicts on Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan), as witnessed in trembling hands, shallow breathing, wild panic and outright fear. Heroism is a noble thing in Anthropoid, but it comes with consequences and qualms.

Newsreel footage and on-screen titles provide the historical context to the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and the way the country was sacrificed by European neighbours keen to appease Hitler and avoid war. Heydrich is a figure of hatred but remains an unseen presence throughout the film until the moment the attack is made on his car. The focus is on Gabcik and Kubis as they land in occupied territory and begin to plan what was known as Operation Anthropoid.

It quickly becomes clear that the execution of Heydrich is a symbolic gesture to assert an entire country’s determination to resist its oppressors. It is also clear that it is being planned without any notions of how the two men will leave the country or the blood that might be spilled to avenge Heydrich’s death.

Ellis has taken the decision to employ a multi-national cast and have them all speak in a lightly accented English. There is the possibility that decision could rob the film of some authenticity, but it doesn’t take a long period of adjustment for it to become acceptable. We are also in familiar territory that has been ripe for spoofing in the past. The film serves up its fair share of clandestine rendezvous, unexpected romances in the shadow of death and cyanide capsule suicides. It successfully avoids any hint of ‘Allo ‘Allo by the clear sincerity of everyone involved.

Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan diligently sustain their accents throughout with only a slight hint of Irish brogue creeping in, virtually undetected. The two men are well contrasted in their performances with Murphy’s Josef focused on the mission; practical, resolved and unwilling to contemplate any other matter. Dornan’s Jan is more of a bashful romantic who wants to live to see a world beyond the Nazi era rather than rush towards self-sacrifice.

Ellis serves as his own cinematographer, using a grainy, textured look for the 1930s and creating a sense of the past that feels lived in rather than suspiciously neat and tidy. He also favours tight close-ups and restless, edgy handheld camerawork to once again convey the heightened emotions of what was being undertaken.

Anthropoid can feel slightly reserved at times, as if overly determined to avoid gung-ho melodrama and keep it real. Some big moments happen off camera or are surprisingly understated. But the approach really pays off in the film’s final half hour as the pace quickens and we feel a direct connection to the characters whose lives are on the line.

In the heat of the moment and the chaos of a well-staged siege in a Prague church it is almost possible to forget that you know exactly what happened to Gabcik, Kubis and all those who dared to strike a blow against Nazi tyranny. It is a testimony to the film’s careful construction and honest intentions that you have become so engaged in the fate of the characters.

Production companies: LD Entertainment, Lucky Man Films

International sales: ICM Partners/UTA, filmsales@icmpartners.com

Producers:Pete Shiliamon, Mickey Liddell

Screenplay: Sean Ellis, Anthony Frewin

Cinematography: Sean Ellis

Editor: Richard Mettler

Production Designer: Morgan Kennedy

Music: Robin Foster

Cast: Jamie Dornan, Cillian Murphy, Charlotte LeBon, Toby Jones