Anthropoid (2016)

Sean Ellis’s gripping and gruesome Second World War thriller shines a light on a little-known true story of heroism.

Mission Impossible

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Anthropoid opens in familiar Second World War film fashion – two undercover Czech freedom fighters, Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan, The 9th Life of Louis Drax) and Josef Gabcík (Cillian Murphy, Peaky Blinders), are parachuted by the British into the woods outside Prague in 1942. Risking betrayal and supplied with out-of-date information, they have to make contact with the local resistance, including leader Uncle Jan (Toby Jones).

The two men have come to assassinate SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, the ‘Butcher of Prague’, who was the high-ranking Nazi effectively ruling Czechoslovakia and third in command of the Third Reich. Though an important part of Czech history, the film is closely based on events that are little known, and its title is the code name of the operation – a fact that is only revealed some time into the film by Uncle Jan’s questions.

Cillian Murphy is excellent as the driven Gabcík; Jamie Dornan is sympathetic in the quieter role of Kubiš and they are a compelling screen partnership. Although the resistance group are increduous that this ambitious mission can succeed, and fearful of the consequences they billet the two men on a brave Czech family – committed mother (Alena Mihulová), reticent father (Pavel Reznícek) and sensitive violin-playing adolescent son (Bill Milner). To move around the city inconspicuosly, they recruit two young women, Marie (Charlotte Le Bon) and Lenka (Anna Geislerová), to pose as their girlfriends, and one of these covers blossoms into a real love affair.

Director Sean Ellis’s intelligent script (co-written by Stanley Kubrick’s former assistant, Anthony Frewin) shows the almost amateur nature of the plans, so doomed that everyone involved is issued with cyanide pills and there is no provision for what happens next if they are successful (Brexit, anyone?). Heydrich was the most senior Nazi to be killed and although the assassination attempt inititally seemed to be botched, his death led to very bloody reprisals against both the citizens of Prague and the country as a whole. There are gruesome scenes of torture and a brutal prolonged shootout as the conspirators are hunted down.

The Czech characters here all speak in English, with Eastern European accents, which can seem strange. The recreation of wartime Prague has an authentic newsreel feel. The film is gripping and at times crackles with tension. In the end, after all the suspense and violence, it leaves you wondering whether such sacrifice was really worth it given the extreme brutality it triggered.

Anthropoid is released on 9 September 2016 in the UK.

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