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.
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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.