Anthropoid | Film review - Stirring World War Two tale of courage in the face of terror

Anthropoid Cillian Murphy

Get past the off-putting title, which sounds as though it belongs to a schlocky sci-fi film. Get past the iffy Czech accents. And get past the stodgy scene setting. Do all this and you will find WW2 thriller Anthropoid genuinely stirring.

British writer/director Sean Ellis (Cashback, The Broken, Metro Manila) isn’t the first filmmaker to tackle the 1942 mission to assassinate high-ranking Nazi Reinhard Heydrich in Prague. Operation Anthropoid has already been the inspiration for a string of films, including Fritz Lang’s fictionalised wartime noir Hangmen Also Die! (1943) and Lewis Gilbert’s more faithful Operation Daybreak (1976).

And he certainly won’t be the last. Another version, HHhH, starring Rosamund Pike, Mia Wasikowska, Jack O’Connell, Jack Reynor and Jason Clarke is due next year. Ellis’s film has its flaws but, taken on its own terms, remains a rousing account of extraordinary courage in the face of overwhelming odds and savage reprisals.

Anthropoid Cillian Murphy Jamie Dornan

(Image credit: James Lisle)

"A hint of romance"

Shooting with a largely British and Irish cast, Ellis has his cast speak with Slavic-accented English, which adds some awkwardly inauthentic notes as the film unfolds. The plot, however, cleaves fairly faithfully to the historical events.

Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan take the leading roles of Czech soldiers Josef Gabčík and Jan Kubis, who parachute into their brutally occupied homeland under orders from the Czechoslovak government-in-exile to kill Heydrich, the Reich’s highest leader behind Hitler and Himmler and the main author of the Final Solution.

They make contact with the local Resistance, headed by a grave Toby Jones. And they also hook up with two local women, played by Anna Geislerová and Charlotte Le Bon, who provide them with social cover and the film with a hint of romance.

Anthropoid Anna Geislerová Cillian Murphy

"The film steps up a gear"

Despite the ever-present sense of danger – this is, after all, a city where the wrong shade of lipstick can get you killed if it makes you too noticeable – there’s something plodding about the mission’s planning stages: there are too many false starts and delays to make a streamlined drama.

But when we get to the assassination attempt and its aftermath, the film steps up a gear. The SS bring to bear their full force on the Resistance fighters, cornered in a Prague church. And so does Ellis, training his cinematic firepower on a relentless, brutally sustained sequence that will have you reeling in shock and awe.

Certificate 15. Runtime 120 mins. Director Sean Ellis

Jason Best

A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.