Karlovy Vary Film Review: ‘Anthropoid’

Anthropoid Jamie Dornan Cillian Murphy
Courtesy of Bleecker Street

Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy spearhead a mission to assassinate a top-ranking Nazi officer in a thriller that doesn't actually get thrilling until after the deed is done.

In Hollywood’s alternate history of World War II, Tom Cruise tried and failed to assassinate Adolf Hitler in the loosely fact-based “Valkyrie,” as did Walter Pidgeon in Fritz Lang’s thoroughly fictional “Man Hunt,” before Brad Pitt finally managed to get the job done with the help of his fellow “Inglourious Basterds.” Now, in the most historically accurate of these big-screen resistance feats, “Fifty Shades of Grey” heartthrob Jamie Dornan takes aim at one of Hitler’s top lieutenants, SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, who oversaw both the Reich’s claim on Bohemia and Moravia (now the Czech Republic) and the Final Solution.

Anthropoid,” which derives its sci-fi-sounding title from the Czechoslovak army-in-exile’s real-life operation to assassinate Heydrich, capitalizes on the facts of this little-known act of heroism, casting two dreamy stars (Dornan and Cillian Murphy) as expat soldiers Jan Kubiš and Josef Gabčík, who parachute back into their Nazi-occupied homeland to carry out the mission. The trouble is that for all the narrative intrigue and excitement such an endeavor might suggest, director Sean Ellis’ less-than-dramatic recreation of this daring act of defiance proves surprisingly stiff — all starchy costumes, shaky camerawork and thick Slavic accents (the latter borrowing from the by-now-laughable trend of British actors playing foreigners as if they have mastered neither their native tongue nor our own) — barely redeemed by an even more surprisingly intense finale.

Ellis, who conducted extensive research into Operation Anthropoid before writing the screenplay with Anthony Frewin, clearly felt that the story would be most engaging if audiences had the chance to identify with this handful of seemingly normal people who dared to target a high-ranking Nazi officer. Perhaps we have been fooled by the long tradition of bold Hollywood heroes that tend to give us a vicarious sense of confidence when psyching ourselves up for such missions on-screen, but being confronted by frayed nerves and self-doubt tends to more frustrating than universal.

Sure, our hands would probably tremble as well if asked to shoot a soldier in the back, but watching Dornan’s character struggle to do his job merely makes one want to scream — or else elbow him aside and pull the trigger himself. (Ellis, who should really consider hiring another d.p., applies the same unsteadiness to his own camerawork, but instead of adding grit and realism, it leaves us feeling dizzy and disoriented.) Such impatience extends to a long digression in which Jan and Josef enlist two attractive Czech women, Marie (Canadian beauty Charlotte Le Bon) and Lenka (Anna Geislerová, star of the similarly resistance-themed, but otherwise superior Czech Oscar nominee “Zelary”), to pretend to be their girlfriends so they might circulate in public. Both men fall for their beards, which ought to humanize them, but instead suggests that they’ve each lost sight of the mission at hand.

“Boredom may be the biggest enemy we have here,” one of their conspirators mutters after the deed is done — or at least attempted — and Jan, Josef and the other soldiers involved have taken up hiding in the basement of an Eastern Orthodox church in Prague. Ironically, by this point (perhaps two-thirds into the film), even the most WWII-interested audiences will have been battling boredom, and it’s only after the characters wind up stuck in hiding that this thriller becomes thrilling. Until then, “Anthropoid” is a peculiarly wooden period piece, as timid characters try to muster the courage to do what is asked of them.

Even the mission itself — which borrows from the Union Station scene in “The Untouchables” (which in turn borrows from the Odessa Steps sequence in “Battleship Potemkin”), baby carriage and all — is a clumsy, badly choreographed muddle. That may have been Ellis’ intention, as Jan and Josef evidently planned their approach on the fly, were forced to adapt when one of their collaborators didn’t show, and had to improvise when confronted with glitchy weapons and other last-minute surprises.

All of that should actually make the shootout more exciting, but instead it serves as an early anti-climax, leading to quite the surprise when the “boredom” of hiding out in Karel Boromejsky Church yields a suspenseful, Alamo-style standoff between an understandably nervous clutch of resistance fighters and what appears to be an inexhaustible supply of Germany soldiers. In other words, just when we think the movie should be over, it finally kicks into gear, as the Reich’s reaction to the attempted assassination of one of its top dogs is to crush any and all rebellion — including the off-screen destruction of an entire Czech town thought to be involved in the plan, resulting in the deaths of thousands of innocent women and children.

Though directed by a Brit, “Anthropoid” was mounted by Czech producers, including director David Ondrícek (“In the Shadow”) and Krystof Mucha, executive director of the Karlovy Vary film fest (where the film had its world premiere), and the entire experience feels geared toward Czech audiences. Kubiš, Gabčík and the seven other soldiers who helped carry out the mission are local heroes, and the movie embodies lingering anti-Teutonic outrage as well as patriotism, especially in its depiction of the civilians who risked standing up to the Nazis: Marie, Lenka and the conspirators’ ill-fated host family, the Moravecs.

While that focus suggests the project might fare better on Czech television than it will chasing after “Fifty Shades of Grey” fans, the production does make excellent use of Barrandov Studios and various historic Prague exteriors. Murphy and Dornan bring less to the table, subsuming their star qualities in an attempt to humanize their still-mostly-flat characters. But if Ellis’ intention was to remind what these real soldiers actually accomplished, as opposed to selling some revisionist Hollywood fantasy of Nazi opposition, then to that extent, mission accomplished.

Karlovy Vary Film Review: 'Anthropoid'

Reviewed at Wilshire Screening Room, June 24, 2016. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 120 MIN.

Production

(U.K.-Czech Republic-France) A Bleecker Street Media (in. U.S.) release of a LD Entertainment, Lucky Man Films, Silver A, 22h22 production. Produced by Michey Liddell, Pete Shilaimon. Executive producers, Anita Overland, Leonard Glowinski, Krystof Mucha, David Ondrícek, Jennifer Monroe, Chris Curling.

Crew

Directed by Sean Ellis. Screenplay, Ellis, Anthony Frewin. Camera (color, widescreen), Ellis; editor, Richard Mettler; music, Robin Foster; production designer, Morgan Kennedy; supervising art director, Radek Hanák; art director, Michal Šoun; set decoration, Ussal Kalyoncu Smithers; costume designer, Josef Cechota; sound, Yves Marie Omnes; sound designer/supervising sound editor, James Mather; re-recording mixers, Chris Burdon, Mather; visual effects supervisor/producer, Nick Drew; visual effects, Baseblack; special effects supervisor, Kamil Jafar; special effects, Flash Brrandov Special Effects; stunt coordinator, Radek Bruna; assistant director, Martin Krauka; casting, Des Hamilton.

With

Jamie Dornan, Cillian Murphy, Charlotte Le Bon, Anna Geislerová, Toby Jones, Harry Lloyd, Alena Mihulová, Bill Milner, Pavel Reznícek, Jirí Simek, Sam Keeley, Detlef Bothe. (English, German dialogue)

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  1. Rod Macleod says:

    I couldn’t disagree more with Peter Debruge’s opinion of this movie.
    To call the characters timid is an insult to the memory of the real characters.
    Maybe Peter should try jumping in a moral compass time machine and propelling himself back to the final days of the 7 soldiers life’s.
    The directors vision was a wonderful vision of modern film noir. The movie had a progressive motion taking time to really build on the characters.
    This isn’t a action movie. There is only two action sequences. One in the middle of the movie which acted as a prelude to the main sequence at the end which pardon the pun was mind blowing.
    This in essence is a true example of an anti war movie. War is horror

  2. Damien O'Dell says:

    Yes I agree wholeheartedly – this could have been a great movie, given the ‘mission impossible’ true story it was based on and its successful outcome. Given that seven resistance fighters held out for six days against innumerable, highly trained enemy soldiers. Given that they made their enemies pay dearly for their own lives… Instead it was hugely disappointing, dull and uninspired. I was hoping for a Zulu, a Great Escape or even a Wild Bunch. Instead I got a featureless, boring and poorly constructed history lesson…

  3. jorgekafkazar says:

    The box office tells me that this review is spot on. The movie is very historically accurate, making it possibly the most exciting documentary ever. But if you’re making a movie about assassinating someone, don’t have him die off-camera. And when the news that Heydrich is dead reaches the assassins, you’ve hit the climax and time to wrap it up quickly. I hate flashbacks, but in this case, I think it would have made a better movie to open with 750 well-armed, over-confident SS men, expecting to be victorious in 15 minutes, starting to attack the church.

  4. Don Bell says:

    A ridculous review…a great movie based on HISTORY(with a few inaccuracies to be sure), showing the conflicts between and within the brave and principled individuals who struck a blow against Nazism and evil…exciting from beginning to end, and a salutary tale, given our own political situation and the resurgence of fascism today..note: it’s a far cry from the distorted and sensationalized drivel perpetrated by Tarantino and other Hollywood “action/revenge” film fictionalizers.

  5. Lizanne Whitlow says:

    I found I stopped breathing in this film; indeed, the audience did not move a muscle. The atmospheric, slow deliberate first part (foreboding) sets the stage for the incredibly explosive ending. Everyone needs to know and understand this story, and ask themselves “could I have been so brave?” Lastly, as always it seems, there is a betrayer of good men.

  6. Patricia Talley says:

    I saw the movie tonight and I thought all the actors did an amazing job. Jamie nailed it when he broke down with the reality that this wasn’t just a mission, but his life was more than likely over. The reviewer at Variety would rather move him aside and pull the trigger himself? Hardly likely. If suddenly faced with the fact that he could be dead in days, he would probably pee himself.

    In the end Jamie’s character showed strength, and we saw the real emotions from both main actors that you would expect the real men to feel.

  7. quey2 says:

    From all the reviews I’ve just read here, I’d say whoever wrote the review for Variety, got it wrong…

  8. quey2 says:

    I just saw this movie last night. I thought it was Very Good! Well done. I thought it was very thrilling! Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan at their best. This was based on a true story, and I thought it was told very well. I would Highly recommend seeing it.

  9. I saw the movie twice, & apart from some minor historical innacuracies,I thoroughly enjoyed the movie.It was about time that this brave effort,doomed to failure,was brought to the big screen. Kudos to all involved with the making of this film.

  10. Katarina says:

    Gabcik’s first name was Jozef, not Josef, he was Slovak. The movie also gets this wrong in the closing credits.

    • Bea says:

      Yes, Jozef Gabčík was Slovak. He was born in Poluvsie – part of Rajecke Teplice, Slovakia. There is still his house and also people are very proud of him! There is build a monument for remembering his life at the village.

  11. Mere LaTour says:

    I also LOVED the film. I thought the direction was outstanding and the cinematography was beautiful and impressive. To see this act of heroism on screen gave me a lot to think about.

  12. Ellen says:

    I totally disagree with this review. I loved this film. I felt that Jamie Dornan’s portrayal of Jon was real and vulnerable. Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy were amazing together. The ending was gut wrenching and kept me on the edge of my seat and wanting so much for the men to survive. I did not find any part of the movie boring or slow. This is a MUST SEE FILM!!!!

  13. I thought the movie was disturbingly well done. The 2 main characters were terrific. I guess I saw a different movie than you Variety.

  14. Jay Clarke says:

    How can Variety review this film without mentioning and then comparing it to Operation Daybreak from 1975?

  15. tlsnyder42 says:

    Baloney! This is a great movie, one of the best movies all year so far.

  16. Jo says:

    Why are Variety critics trying to pretend to know Czech history when they know nothing? Please, when you’re writing about such topic, don’t be lazy and read something first. Even Wikipedia would help. Journalists are thinking that higher number will get them more clicks and they can make more out of it “…resulting in the deaths of thousands of innocent women and children.” No doubt it was a tragedy, but 192 men, 60 women and 88 children from the town (its name is Lidice btw.) who died are not thousands and you totally forgot men. You should be ashamed that you’re misusing death of innocent people to your own purpose.

    • jorgekafkazar says:

      Lidice was not the only village destroyed. Related arrests in the Prague area alone numbered 15,000, many of whom later died in the camps. Estimates of the total number killed for revenge go as high as 5,000, according to your Wikipedia source. If Variety is “misusing death of innocent people to own purpose,” what does that say about the film-makers?

  17. Robert says:

    Just a detail, but still: the church those seven men hid in, is the Russian-Orthodox Church of saints Cyril a Metoděj – holes from the heavy machine-gun fire still visible in its walls. The church you mention, of Karel Boromejsky, is located across the river Vltava, just outside of the gardens of the US Embassy in Prague. It would be quite extraordinary anyway, for the Orthodox to dedicate their church to a catholic saint :-)

  18. japes75 says:

    Would be good if the writers of these articles recognised that southern Ireland is not part of Britain, ergo Cillian Murphy is not a ‘British’ actor.

  19. Angeline says:

    I stayed so to watch the movie my self and i didn’t enjoy much i have to admit.The problem was the director mainly but also the accents and some performances…As i ‘ve been told before i got into the theatre Murphy was very good but indeed Dornan is lacking of charisma.Very stiff and it’s like he trying too much to act.Which is uncomfortable to watch sometimes.And i see some people lying here,please don’t do it. We are serious here and we respect this industry.

  20. Robert says:

    All review are praising the actors but director is getting backlash. Al through i love the movie actingwas awesome & on point. Murphy & Dornan did a good job.

  21. cadavra says:

    A note to directors–If you want to be your own D.P., ask yourself this question: Am I Jack Cardiff? If the answer is no, then hire someone else.

  22. Angeline says:

    Most people who walked out if the theatre were bored.A friend who is also a journalist said Murphy was good but his accent could be better but Dornan was not good at all.The movie has many problems apparently. :(

    • John says:

      All people are saying Dornan was good in the movie. Even there is standing ovation. The problem was director.

      • Kevin says:

        Of course there will be a standing ovation from a room filled with people from the Czech Republic, no unbiased opinions there (eye roll)! I saw the movie the accents was horrible, Jamie’s acting was far worst while Cillian shines as usual. Stop lying!

  23. Devon Santos says:

    Thanks, like I said before I will skip this film and watch HHhH instead. Although I like Cillian, I still can’t take Jamie Dornan’s acting seriously!

    • Ella says:

      This one is more historically accurate. It is actually filmed in Prague in correct places, while HHHH was filmed in Hungary. What a disgrace to those heroes…

  24. I cannot wait to see “Anthropoid” despite this lukewarm review and am sure that all Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy fans will go to see it, ensuring it is a hit film!! I love Jamie Dornan and will watch anything he is in. Fortunately, I am a big fan of all the roles he’s done so far! I know I will be happy with this, too.

    • blip says:

      Speaking as a longtime (and long-suffering) Cillian Murphy fan: Sounds like another theater-blip-on-its-way-to-DVD-slant-pay-per-view “hit” for our favorite Corkonian. (Remember his last film-fest marvel, “Aloft”? Didn’t think so.) When the right project falls in his lap (like “Misterman”), he’s incredibly good. Left to his own devices, he wouldn’t know a decent script if one ran up and bit him. And, yes, from what I’ve heard in the clips and trailers for this, his Czech accent is very silly indeed. Looks like another well-intentioned case of “what?” from here. Hardcore fans will (pre-)fawn; the “Peaky Blinders” crowd will scratch their heads and go back to waiting for Season Four.

      • japes75 says:

        Understand the sentiment that; “he wouldn’t know a good script if one ran up and bit him.” However, I think this is because everything he does stateside is pretty dire. There is a reason for that. First of all it’s worth remembering that he lobbied hard for the lead roles in 28 Day’s Later, The Wind that Shakes the Barely and Peaky Blinders, and equally as hard for Breakfast on Pluto to be made.

        28 Days Later (which he auditioned for six times) was the sleeper hit that opened him up to the American market where (predictably) they just don’t know what to do with him. Thus the only good projects he’s involved with continue to be those headed up by English directors (Messrs Boyle, Nolan and Loach). America’s most respected and notoriously hard to please film critic, Roger Ebert, gave Breakfast on Pluto 3.5 out of 4 stars. And lets not forget The Wind that Shakes the Barely (also six auditions), won the Palme d’Or.

        As for PB, I think this shows remarkable prescience on Murphy’s part. He had a tough time convincing the producers that a mild mannered, ‘skinny Irishman’ could pull off Tommy Shelby. His performance, a career defining tour de force, I think he knew exactly how promising that script was (in my opinion it’s the best TV series to date). And lets face it, even in the company of a strong regular cast and great cameo’s (Neill, Considine, Hardy), it’s Murphy who commands the most attention, a function of excellent writing and astonishing acting.

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