“What is your mission?”
Tense and brimming with heart-quickening action, Sean Ellis’ Anthropoid is a World War II film that eschews the front lines for acts of covert espionage and drama. Inspired by true events, this is the tale of two soldiers — Jozef (Cillian Murphy) and Jan (Jamie Dornan) — who parachute into German–occupied Czechoslovakia and set-up undercover identities. Their mission: assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, one of, the main architects of the Final Solution.
Like a hybrid of Christian Petzold’s Phoenix and a less-farcical Inglorious Basterds, Ellis’ film builds tension while giving its characters plenty of breathing room. Murphy’s Jozef is the order-adhering realist: fully committed to assassinating Heydrich, consequences be damned. Dornan’s Jan is more the optimist: hoping for an option that would have a less-than-fatal outcome for Jozef and himself.
While hiding out with a family sympathetic to their cause, Jozef and Jan develop relationships with two local women: Jan with the young, overly-romantic Marie (Charlotte Le Bon) and Jozef with Lenka (Anna Geislerová), who has lost her father to the Nazis and has a much-less-romanticized view of war. The love-story between Jan and Marie is a handled in an underwhelming manner, so much so that when the pair announce they plan to be married it comes across as tacked-on and false. But the muted romance that build between Jozef and Lenka is honest and melancholy. The pair don’t quite hit it off when they first meet, but slowly develop a respect and fondness for each other that feels as if it’s happening in real time. Geislerová, prone to frosty glares that say so much while she says so little, makes for such a compelling character that one almost wishes she had been the main character instead.
Murphy and Dornan make for a wonderful pair — Murphy hard-nosed, Dornan softer around the edges. The script, co-written by Ellis and Anthony Frewin, dolls out tiny bits of information as the story progresses: at first, after being injured during the parachute drop in, Murphy seems the weaker of the two men while Dornan appears more of violent enforcer. But the roles reverse the more we get to know the men, and Murphy and Dornan’s performances help endear the characters to us while dreading their less-than-optimistic fate. Supporting turns from Alena Mihulová, as the family-woman helping to house Jozef and Jan, and Toby Jones, as one of the soldiers’ handlers, could’ve easily been underwritten and one-note, but the writing and performances bring them fully to life, creating living-breathing people in the process.
The cinematography, also by Ellis, is washed-out and smoky, simultaneously beautiful and filled with dread. A yellowish-tint over the outdoor scenes in direct sunlight conjure up mental images of gazing at faded photographs from the era, and the ever present smoke and dust heighten the foreboding sense of occupation during war time. While this is a character-driven drama first, Ellis also stages spectacular action sequences bursting with loud, overwhelming gun fire. The sequence where Jozef, Jan and three other men, stage and attempt to carry-out the assassination is masterful in its construction: Ellis understands that to make an action sequence more thrilling you have to begin with stillness before rupturing it with movement. One hesitates to throw around the phrase much-over-and-often-miss-used term “Hitchockian”, but a moment when Jozef steps out into the street in front of a moving car, gun aimed, while the camera, mounted in the car, slowly rolls towards him is a fine appropriation of the type of visual language Hitchcock could fire-off in his sleep. A lengthy, climactic battle in a church is more blunt and brutal, but just as effective.
After a summer rife with hollow, underwhelming spectacle and downright atrocious filmmaking, Anthropoid is like a breath of fresh air. Here is an adult-driven thriller that works, full of sound and fury and actually signifying something. To hell with mindless “popcorn entertainment” that constantly fails to deliver — Anthropoid is the cure for the common, disappointing summer movie season.