Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy excel as Czech army agents in a tense and compelling account of one of the Second World War's less heralded moments
Of all history’s monsters, there are few who wrought more destruction than Reinhard Heydrich. Outranked in the SS by Heinrich Himmler alone, Heydrich was the urbane and calculating architect of that most horrifying of national policies: the Final Solution. His chairing of the Wannsee Conference in 1942 sealed the fate of Europe’s Jews and elevated him to a level where Adolf Hitler’s admiration was as tangible as any medal pinned on a grey uniform.
It was Kenneth Branagh, of course, who played Heydrich with such grace in 2001’s Conspiracy, a chronicle of the chillingly unfussy manner in which he and other high-ranking Nazis convened around a polished table and decided upon the most expeditious method for solving their particular Jewish question.
His assassination, then, in Prague, dealt a significant blow to the upper echelons of the Third Reich and signalled that few Nazis were safe from the citizens they sought to dominate. For English filmmaker Sean Ellis, that event represents a solid base upon which to construct his latest picture, Anthropoid.
Taking its title from the code name of the operation intended by the exiled Czech government to kill Heydrich — acting as the region’s governor at the time — and thus decapitate Germany’s local structures in the process, Ellis’s work is a tense and compelling account of one of the Second World War's less heralded moments.
In the starring roles, Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy offer up glowering commitment as the agents sent home from London for the purpose of executing a man commonly known as ‘the Butcher of Prague.’ It is no small undertaking.
A film boasting occasionally beautiful visuals, Anthropoid opens with assassins Jozef Gabčík (Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Dornan) parachuting into the snow-crusted forests beyond the Czech capital, in December 1941.
From the beginning, Ellis wields a sense of tension that continues throughout, his heroes never more than a slip away from discovery and death. Capturing events in the handheld style that has served compatriot Paul Greengrass so well, the director mines multiple thrills from a period drama as convincing as it is important.
In an era of movies failing to connect due to poor pacing, this succeeds in never lessening the level of foreboding that lurks around each corner. Within minutes Gabčík and Kubiš dispatch a traitor, meet resistance handlers, reconnect with their mission team and settle into new lodgings and, thanks to the long, dark shadow cast by the Reich demanding speed of movement and thought, events avoid coming off as overly hasty – in spite of the truncation of history’s timeline.
Indeed, before long the central duo have established the details of their scheme, though in truth they are merely tools of distant superiors, a fact giving rise to more than a little friction with the local partisans, whose diminished but determined efforts are headed up by Toby Jones's genial 'Uncle' Hajský. This dash of political dissonance pushes the proceedings beyond a mere tale of wartime derring-do, illustrating, instead, how divisions can emerge when they are least useful.
It is fraternity, however, that drives a small band of crusaders (including Game of Thrones alum Harry Lloyd) towards the ultimate goal. In the latter stages such common cause is needed more than ever, enemies and fate closing in on the conspirators. The attempt on Heydrich’s life is swift and violent, a slickly produced set piece that descends into chaos; confusion and the need to supplant Hollywood-style grandstanding.
As far as the performances go, the leads excel with portrayals that provide just enough layers to seem real. Murphy — no stranger to thick accents — is awarded the best lines, never shirking from the opportunity to ratchet up the intensity of his gaze. He might be the brains of the partnership, and Dornan’s softly spoken sidekick its sweeter conscience, but there exists tangible chemistry between them, an almost unspoken bond that peeps out on more than one occasion.
If both men are underwhelmed by poorly conceived romantic entanglements that develop, then depart, too quickly, they triumph before the end. The brilliant conclusion, a firefight that tears through the sanctified confines of an elegant Prague church, sees both actors come into their own. Themes of courage and mortality are weighty, no doubt, yet Ellis handles these deftly, imbuing the finale with an emotional heft that feels truly profound.
Anthropoid is on general release now.