Anthropoid feels like it was shot for television, and none too well at that.
If you go to Sean Ellis’ Anthropoid expecting a science fiction movie, you will be sorely disappointed. The anthropoid referenced in the title is not a human-like robot but Operation Anthropoid, a mission to assassinate the Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich. However, even if you are clear about the subject matter of Anthropoid, you’ll still be disappointed, because while the mission in question was a success, the movie is not. Sorry if the former is a spoiler for you, but not knowing this basic fact about World War II is right up there with not realizing that the Apollo 13 mission returned successfully to earth.
Operation Anthropoid has been treated in several movies already, including Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! and Douglas Sirk’s Hitler’s Madman, both released in 1943. Anthropoid sticks closer to the facts than either but is not nearly as successful as a movie. That’s a shame because Heydrich was a monster even by Nazi standards (among other things, he was known as “the butcher of Prague” for his cruel treatment of civilians in Bohemia and Moravia, helped organize Kristallnacht, and was a key architect of the so-called Final Solution). I’d love to watch a truly effective, fact-based movie portraying his takedown, but I’m still waiting for that movie to be made.
Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy play Czech expats Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcik, respectively, who parachute back into their home country to carry out Operation Anthropoid at the behest of Edvard Benes’ Czech government in exile. They seem poorly prepared for the job, however—Gabcik suffers a serious injury upon landing, and they so carelessly dispose of their parachutes that they are discovered almost immediately. Even more damning, Kubis muffs the opportunity to kill a farmer who clearly intends to betray them to the Germans, his first but not his last failure of nerve during this mission. Gabcik soon reveals himself as a self-entitled jerk, not an optimal character profile for someone embarking on so sensitive a mission. Ellis, who co- wrote the script with Anthony Frewin, may have meant to make Kubis and Gabcik more appealing by emphasizing their human frailties, but the effort backfired—instead of sympathizing with them, you want to give them a good shaking and tell them to focus on the job at hand.
We never really get to know Kubis and Gabcik, while the other characters are treated even more sketchily. Anna Geislerova and Charlotte Le Bon play two young women who aid Kubis and Gabcik in their mission, and Toby Jones plays Jan Zelenka-Hajsky, a leader of the resistance movement within Czechoslovakia, but they’re just cogs in the story’s machinery. Even worse, when Kubis and Gabcik go into hiding in the basement of a church, there’s a bunch of guys already there who we can deduce are also resistance fighters, but whose characters are left almost entirely undeveloped. Most of the characters speak in heavily-accented English, as if they had wandered in from an episode of ‘Allo, ‘Allo!, a choice which gets old fast, while occasionally someone speaks in German or Czech, usually without subtitles.
Ellis also served as the cinematographer for Anthropoid, an odd choice in a movie that clearly had substantial money to spend renting period vehicles and costumes, as well as creating the ridiculously out-of-proportion action sequence that concludes the film. Independent of the strain of juggling three roles on the same film, Ellis doesn’t seem to have much of a feel for using the camera effectively. His persistent use of shaky-cam, even when the characters are seated at a table, makes me want to take up a collection to buy him a tripod, while his penchant for close-ups and fragmentation undercuts his obvious desires to make a big film—instead, Anthropoid feels like it was shot for television, and none too well at that. | Sarah Boslaugh