Review: Anthropoid (2016)


In 1938 at the Munich Conference, the Allied powers ceded control of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in hopes of preventing an inevitable European war. The effort soon failed as Germany invaded Poland, starting World War Two, and Czechoslovakia mounted a passionate resistance to German occupation. Hitler stymied the resistance by sending his third-in-command, Reinhard Heydrich, to Prague to beat the country into submission. Heydrich’s presence broke the Czechoslovak spirit, but in retaliation, the free-Czechoslovak government in London planned a resistance attack, “Operation Anthropoid,” to buoy national spirits. Anthropoid is the story of Jozef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan), soldiers of the free-Czechoslovak army, who parachuted into Prague in December 1941 to carry out the assassination of Heydrich in a defiant act of Czechoslovakian resistance to German domination.

Anthropoid is a great history lesson, but dramatically-inert. Relaying a lesser-known but vitally-important part of World War Two history, the film has the advantage of unique perspective and genuine surprise. For instance, unlike the D-Day invasions or the Battle of Stalingrad, most North American viewers would be ignorant of Czechoslovak efforts during the war and wouldn’t know whether Heydrich survived his assassination attempt. This gives the film urgency and tension that you wouldn’t have in other historical fare. However, director Sean Ellis’s filmmaking squanders that sense of surprise.

If Anthropoid is illuminating as a history lesson, it’s boring as a film. There are no standout scenes. The rhythm is tedious. Filmed in perpetual close-up with handheld cameras (as if to mask the low budget and shoddy soundstage work), the film is formally monotonous. Nothing is filmed distinctly. Romantic asides involving Jozef and Jan wooing two women of the resistance (Charlotte Le Bon and a terrific Anna Geislerová) as well as the initial parachute into Prague or moments of subterfuge involving sinister Nazis are all shot in medium-close-up with aimless cameras and edited in an orgy of coverage. The assassination attempt on Heydrich is the only moment that gets your heart beating, but even it is rushed over, as if they couldn’t afford to film the whole sequence. Even the inevitable action climax, which takes place in a fortified church, has the repetitiveness of a level of Call of Duty.

The few moments when Ellis does open up his formal style to allow some stunning vistas of wartime Prague or of warm exchanges between Murphy and Geislerová are welcome, but they’re so rare as to be formal anomalies. Instead, the bulk of Anthropoid is earnest, but lifeless, a war drama directed by a sleepwalker.

4 out of 10

Anthropoid (2016, Czech Republic/UK/France)

Directed by Sean Ellis; written by Sean Ellis and Anthony Frewin; starring Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Charlotte Le Bon, Anna Geislerová, Harry Lloyd, Toby Jones.

This article was originally published on the now-defunct Toronto Film Scene.