Anthropoid review: a humdrum account of an extraordinary plot

The Czechoslovakian scheme to assassinate Heydrich during the second world war should make for riveting viewing, but here the drama falls flat

Fewer than 20 minutes have passed in this second world war thriller when a distrusting leader of the Prague resistance squints and asks: “What is Anthropoid?” Even after watching all two hours of the film, I had to go to to figure out what the word meant (it is a suborder of primates, which, in retrospect, I should have been able to work out using my 11th-grade etymology skills).

Anthropoid was the codeword used by the London-based Czechoslovakian government-in-exile for the plan to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, a powerful and particularly nasty Nazi stationed in Prague. Why they chose Anthropoid is up for debate. Perhaps because Heydrich appeared to be human, but his crimes revealed him to be only a facsimile. Perhaps because the men tasked with carrying out the attack would have to revert to primordial instincts. It isn’t dissected in the movie, but one benefit is that the word begins with the letter A, which means this film will get a decent showing through on-demand services. That is where this by-the-numbers picture deserves to be seen.

Jozef (Cillian Murphy) and Jan (Jamie Dornan) are Czech and Slovak partisans airlifted from London to their native land, currently under the cruel occupation of Heydrich, AKA the Butcher of Prague. Arriving from London is key: a pre-title crawl reminds us of the Munich Agreement, when the Allies essentially sold out Czechoslovakia, allowing the Third Reich to annex the German-speaking Sudetenland in the hope of tamping down Nazi expansion. Planning with the Brits raises eyebrows with the remaining members of the resistance, mainly a solemn Toby Jones, whose every expression exudes a “What choice do we have?” fatalism.

Anthropoid: the trailer.

So Jozef, Jan and their decent-enough accents head to a safe house to work a little spycraft. Before you can say “This movie needs something”, two love interests show up to attempt to breathe life into an otherwise rote assemblage of espionage scenes. (Anthropoid is hardly The Day of the Jackal, and can’t compete on a just-the-mission style of storytelling.) The lead-up to the shootout is an absolute bore – which takes some talent, considering there are backdrops such as Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge at the film-maker’s disposal. There’s only one tiny spark of originality (dipping a lightbulb in red paint for darkroom purposes) that doesn’t feel like it came straight from one of a hundred other better movies.

The assassination sequence works perfectly well, and the film pivots nicely to a tense manhunt. Historians can argue if the government-in-exile truly considered the repercussions of the operation (or knew them all too well, but didn’t care), but the Nazi counter-moves are predictably brutal. A torture sequence to turn out the assassins’ hiding spot is grotesque. It may be an accurate portrayal of the Gestapo’s style, but it doesn’t fit the tone, which heretofore had been a fairly standard, BBC-type production.

This leads to a Rambo-like conclusion, in which Jozef, Jan and a bunch of other guys we haven’t seen before engage in a lengthy shootout. Again, it’s historically accurate that it wasn’t only our two leads who held off the Germans for six hours while holed up in a church, but the cinematic function of these new nameless characters is merely to drag out the action a bit. (The same goes for those girlfriends: Murphy needs a moment to scream “Nooo!” and by God he shall have it.)

Anthropoid isn’t the worst wartime thriller ever made, but it certainly isn’t memorable. The villains are a mass of helmets shouting “Schnell!” or “Scheisse!” or even, occasionally, “Schnell!” and “Scheisse!” Let’s hope they got paid extra. A post-credits crawl hammers home how vital the actions of these men were to the war effort, and just how awful Heydrich was, possibly to make you feel guilty for yawning during the never-ending battle that makes up the third act.


Jordan Hoffman

The GuardianTramp

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