Anthropoid

 

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A longer review than usual is required to explain why I am critical of a film that has been acclaimed by some.

 
Anthropoid

Cillian Murphy 

 

It would appear that many viewers have been deeply impressed by this film's retelling of true events in Czechoslovakia that occurred in 1941and 1942 and I imagine that they would feel that I am being far too exacting in the standards that I require of such a film if I am not to withhold my approval. But the fact is that we are dealing with one of the most tragic and horrifying passages in all of Czech history.

 

As told here, the story of Operation Anthropoid and its consequences may be a single narrative, but it plays as a work in two contrasted halves. The first sees the Moravian Jan Kubis and the Slovenian Josef Gabcik parachuted back into Czechoslovakia with a specific mission. That mission was to assassinate the senior Nazi Reinhard Heydrich whose brutalities had earned him the nickname of The Butcher of Prague. Their efforts to put the plan into action helped by members of the Czech Resistance movement make up the first half, a true tale but one that could be seen as an example of wartime derring-do. However, the consequences of this leading not just to the terrible fate of those involved but to reprisals against the Czechs generally (according to one estimate 5000 died and the name of the village of Lidice which was wiped off the map has never been forgotten) amounted to a national tragedy. In short, these events were to Czechoslovakia the equivalent of what the wartime massacre in Katyń, lied about for years, was to Poland.

 

When dealing with material of this kind the duty of the filmmaker is both to tell the truth and to find a tone that measures up to the history being depicted. Such films as 12 Years a Slave (2013) and Andrzej Wajda's Katyń (2007) are masterpieces which did just that. Anthropoid, a film by Sean Ellis who is director and co-writer, may tell a powerful story and follow in some detail the men who were involved but the contrast between it and the two films cited is huge.

 

Ellis did make his film in Czechoslovakia and retained both his editor Richard Mettler and his composer Robin Foster from his 2013 piece Metro Manila which was also filmed on authentic locations. But, whereas that film opted for authentic dialogue with subtitles, Anthropoid in its bid for the big time has all its characters unrealistically speaking English with the lead roles of Kubis and Gabcik played by Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan respectively. Murphy in particular tries hard to convince in his role, and the supporting cast includes Toby Jones who, portraying a leading figure in the Resistance, acts with sufficient precision and feeling to make us believe in him. But the fact is that, if this approach is to work overall, a much better screenplay is required than the one we have here and, if the heist drama contained in Metro Manila took away credibility and weakened that film's social comment, the present film is even more undermined by elements which seem to be present to add popular appeal to a horrifying story.

 

This is most clearly shown in the roles given to Charlotte Le Bon and Anna Geislerová. Although the events depicted cover only a few months, Anthropoid can't resist the idea of incorporating two love stories, one for Jan Kubis and one for Josef Gabcik, the first leading to a quick attachment while the second is slightly less overt but present nevertheless. Even to introduce these female roles reduces credibility since they appear when Jan and Josef are taken in by a family supporting the Resistance. Marie (Le Bon) helps out in their home and Lenka (Geislerová) is a friend of hers, but both are allowed to become party to the strangers being in the house and soon realise what they are doing. Such risk-taking as well as the romantic interest suggest fiction and, indeed, while Kubis did apparently have a girlfriend in real life she was not named Marie.

 

This lack of conviction in the first half has consequences in the second when the film is certainly more forceful but with an impact closer to Peckinpah or Tarantino than to Wajda. Given some fast editing earlier on which suggest a spurious attempt to increase the tension, one is ready to regard some of the detail later on as fictional gloss even though it is accurate.  But it is the finale which most brings out the gap between what the film hopes to achieve and the response it gets from me. The final section features music but in telling the horrifying truth it opts for stylisation with all natural sounds eliminated and no dialogue: in other words it goes for a grand gesture of the kind that has to be earned by all that has gone before which is not the case here. It also involves the grossly sentimental notion of a man in the face of death envisaging a dead woman holding out her hands and in effect inviting him to join her in the next world. For some this obviously works, but the approach adopted in Anthropoid is to my mind unworthy of the compelling and deeply distressing material with which it is dealing.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Charlotte Le Bon, Anna Geislerová, Toby Jones, Harry Lloyd, Alena Mihulová, Bill Milner, Pavel Reznícek, Jirí Simek, Sam Keeley, Detlef Bothe.

 

Dir Sean Ellis, Pro Sean Ellis, Mickey Liddell and Pete Shilaimon, Screenplay Sean Ellis and Anthony Frewin, Ph Sean Ellis, Pro Des Morgan Kennedy, Ed Richard Mettler, Music Robin Foster, Costumes Josef Cechota.

 

LD Entertainment/Lucky Man Films/Silver A/22h22-Icon Film Distribution.
120 mins. Czech Republic/UK/France. 2016. Rel: 9 September 2016. Cert. 15.