In 1938, Czechoslovakia was overtaken and occupied by the Nazis; one year later the Germans invaded Poland and the Second World War was declared, though the Czechs were not subject to a liberation movement by the Allies until one of the top-ranking SS officers and architects of the Nazi scheme, Reinhard Heydrich (Detlef Bothe) was installed in their country, and in 1942 the opportunity arose to assassinate him. Czech and Slovak soldiers were trained by the British to return to their home nation by parachute and make their way to a place of safety where they could plan their next move. But as the lead soldiers Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) and Josef Gabcík (Cillian Murphy) find, this will not be easy...
The story of the operation to assassinate Heydrich had been told on film before, but co-writer and director Sean Ellis felt he could tell it in a sufficiently fresh and vivid fashion that would bring the assignment and subsequent fall-out to screen life for the twenty-first century. Whether he was correct in that assumption was very much a matter of taste, and it was accurate to observe his technique was not something that every audience was going to get along with; it was not wildly experimental by any means, but he kept his camera close in on and focussed with the cast's faces, which after two hours of big phizogs filling your field of vision could rightfully be accused of a certain monotony.
Not helping was the sense that you were watching a production that would not have been out of place on Sunday night television, told in an intimate fashion that was reluctant to sensationalise the tale in a way that could easily have been a ripsnorting Boy's Own adventure of derring-do akin to an update of Where Eagles Dare or more recently, Quentin Tarantino's fanciful, if violent, Inglourious Basterds (though comparable legions of Nazis were killed in all of them). That Ellis was resistant to that was to his credit, but it didn't half make for some dry wartime drama, and after an arresting beginning where the two paratroopers have to kill a couple of collaborators who were threatening to give them away, we settled in Prague and what curiously felt like a false sense of security.
For the characters as well as the audience, as they held meetings and socialised in a way that suggested they thought they had all the time in the world to perform their mission, which they certainly did not. In these scenes both Murphy and Dornan got to indulge their romantic lead leanings, the former with Anna Geislerová and the latter with Charlotte Le Bon, as Toby Jones fretted in the contact role and a variety of accents, some more authentic-sounding than others, jostled for position in the viewers' ears. So far so lacking in any real oomph, and that relentless style was beginning to grate on anyone who liked a shade more variety in their imagery, a few shots of the wider cityscape, computer generated, naturally, aside. And then something interesting occurred that made this all worthwhile.
Suddenly Heydrich is about to leave Czechoslovakia in a couple of days, probably never to return, and it was as if both characters and film woke up to the urgency of their purpose. The assassins are having to throw together last minute plans to intercept their target as he drives by in the street, and that feeling of ordinary, mundane life turned horribly immediate and pressing by occupation was very much alive in the air. That they manage to get their shots in to Heydrich is a matter of historical record, as is what happened to the plotters, but not everyone will be aware of that; even if you did know the facts, Anthropoid's far improved second half did render the desperation and the tragedy of what struck the Czech people in the aftermath in edge of the seat thriller or action movie terms. Fair enough, it was the basics of war movies that Ellis was getting right, but it was satisfying to see them delivered to so effectively for it brought home the heroism of the actual assassins being portrayed, which was what it was all about. Stick with this and there were rewards. Music by Robin Foster.