Every now and then two films come out around the same time covering the same topic – Twilight and Let the Right One In; Deep Impact and Armageddon; Hitchcock and The Girl. A few years ago, there was a mesmerising, beautifully erotic examination of a couple involved in a kinky sub-dom relationship. It was called The Duke of Burgundy, and Jamie Dornan wasn’t in it. He was in the other one, Fifty Shades of something.
Then we had two films released within a few months of each other about the valiant Czechoslovak parachutists who assassinated Hitler’s third in command, Reinhard Heydrich. First out of the gate was Anthropoid, starring Dornan alongside Cillian Murphy, followed by HHhH, an adaptation of Laurent Binet’s well-received novel. Would Dornan be in the better movie of the two this time round?
I hate to say it without seeing both, but probably not. Any film on this subject is bound to be compared to Binet’s terrific book, which managed the tricky task of making a historic event genuinely suspenseful and exciting. The book had scope, compassion and a lightness of touch, and the chapters covering the assassination and the parachutist’s last stand in a Prague cathedral flew past so quick that I left burn marks on the pages. It’s a fantastic story that deserves a modern re-telling (although maybe not twice in the space of a year), and I dearly hoped that Anthropoid would do justice to the tale.
The first half is pretty stodgy stuff. A few pre-title notes remind us how awful the Nazis were, then we hook up with our heroes Jozef Gabčík (Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Dornan) immediately after they parachute into a snowy forest not far from Prague. After surviving an encounter with some local traitors, they make their way to the capital where they make contacts, act suspiciously, try on their dodgy Czech accents, meet their obligatory love interests, and ploddingly plot their assassination attempt.
The assassination itself is well handled, although we’re never given much of a look at Heydrich beforehand to know who our boys are shooting at. It’s a brief, shattering burst of violence that instantly breathes life into the film. Unfortunately, it is the sole highlight and there’s still about an hour to go.
Director Sean Ellis loses all control of the material in the second half. The story flatlines again up until the final showdown in the cathedral, and we spend countless scenes watching people in brown clothes arguing in brown rooms, shot through a brown filter. It’s jumbled and tiring, especially since Ellis forgets to turn off the wobby cam employed during the assassination. It wouldn’t be any harder to watch if he’d stuck a GoPro camera on a chimp’s head and let it run around among the actors.
The final shootout is the biggest disappointment. Binet’s book handled it masterfully; while never in doubt that the assassins were cornered, outgunned and doomed, the last pages of HHhH felt like the heroe’s final seconds slipping away. He puts us right with them as they hold their nerve, conserve their dwindling ammunition, carefully pick their shots, and make one last desperate escape bid.
Here, it just becomes a generic action sequence, a bunch of good-looking actors mowing down swathes of faceless Nazi goons until it’s time for the credits to roll. It’s loud and boring, and Ellis opts for an ancient Hollywood tear-jerking trope in the final moments. It has an air of desperation about it, and I wanted to throw my chair at the screen.
Anthropoid was co-written by Ellis, and he never seems to trust the plain facts of the suicide mission to be interesting enough, instead littering the film with tired old war movie cliches. He doesn’t trust the audience’s intelligence either. In a quiet moment before the final siege, one of Gabčík’s buddies tries to lift his spirits with a well-chosen quote from the books he’s reading, Julius Caesar. After a beat, the guy says helpfully: “Shakespeare.” – thanks, is that Shakespeare with three Es? He sounds pretty good, maybe I’ll check out some of his stuff.
There are some positives. Jamie Dornan isn’t the worst thing about Anthropoid, and is far better here than he was in Fifty Shades of Grey. Unfortunately, he’s not much of a screen presence and the script gives him most of the emotional heavy lifting, material that requires a more capable actor. Someone like Cillian Murphy. Murphy’s million-mile stare is well suited to a resolute man completely determined to accomplish his task, fully aware of his likely fate.
The assassination of Heydrich is an incredible story and the brave paratroopers who pulled it off deserve a great movie to tell it. Unfortunately Anthropoid isn’t it.