Sunday, August 21, 2016

'Anthropoid' review

World War II has been a fixture in the cinematic realm for decades now, and over the years, this time period has been used to explore a wide range of stories, characters, and tales of heroism. Some have been uplifting and inspiring (despite the unflinching violence, Saving Private Ryan comes to mind), and others have looked frankly at the total pointlessness and horror of war (David Ayer's Fury is a good example here). But few have been as bleak, grim, and hopelessly brutal as Anthropoid, a new thriller from director Sean Ellis. Don't come looking for an upbeat ending or cheerful optimism- this is a relentlessly gruesome and somber tale of an extremely dark period in history. And as long as you know that going in, this smaller-scale war movie is actually a pretty good ride. Led by emotional, deeply human performances from Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan, some gritty filmmaking from Ellis, and one of the best shootouts in recent memory (it recalls classic battles like Scarface and Butch Cassidy), Anthropoid is a memorable journey.

It's 1942 in Prague, the capital city of Czechoslovakia. Before the war broke out, the allied powers simply gave the small nation to Germany, as part of the appeasement process that many hoped would keep the peace in Europe. Hitler soon invaded Poland, kicked off World War II and the rest is history. But for Czechoslovakia, the story didn't end with the Nazi occupation. In Prague, a small underground resistance managed to pop up, hoping that one day, the nation would be ready to resist the power of the Nazis. For the European powers, the assistance of Czechoslovakia was one that they desperately wanted and needed. To do that, they enlist the help of Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan). As Anthropoid opens, the two Czech nationalists (along with several others) are parachuting into the country, a dangerous task that could get them all killed.

One violent fight with a German later, and the two men are in Prague, searching for the leader of the resistance. They find Uncle Hajsky (Toby Jones), a man who manages to assemble what little is left in Prague. Their task- Operation Anthropoid, a mission direct from London with the goal of assassinating Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler's third in command and the "Butcher of Prague." To pull off such a dangerous act, Josef and Jan will need the help of several ordinary Czech citizens and the entire might of the resistance, and even then, it may not be enough. With a highly treacherous mission, no easy solution, and the might of Nazi Germany waiting around every corner, these brave rebels will have to go to great lengths to start an event that could change the fate of the war.

Anthropoid is a fairly straight-forward film, and the style and tone reflect that sentiment. It's blunt, unflinching, and at its worst, a tad bit dull. The visuals are drab and dirty, the cinematography is gritty and realistic, and the costumes are dominated by relatively quiet colors. Inglourious Basterds, this is not. But while I struggled with the relentlessly dour tone and the occasionally plodding pacing at various times during the film, I ultimately came to realize that it all serves the narrative. There is very little happiness in Anthropoid. Every bit of joy or love is ended quickly by something horrific, whether it's the brutal torture of a teenager or suicide by cyanide. Everything builds to create a tone of noble dread, where we find ourselves fearing for the safety of our heroes, while simultaneously realizing that it's for a good cause. Anthropoid deals in the brutal pointlessness of war and the opportunity cost of rebellion, two potent themes that ring true far after the film ends.

Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan are terrific in the lead roles, and it's amazing what these actors (as well as screenwriters Sean Ellis and Anthony Frewin) are able to do with so little exposition. Murphy's Josef and Dornan's Jan contrast each other so well, and part of the reason that Anthropoid works lies in the arcs that these two characters take over the course of the story. Murphy's Josef is steely and unrelenting, a man with fierce determination and uncompromising focus. His eyes are on the prize- and in the context of this film, that prize is the death of Heydrich. But while Josef is a calculating strategist, he also has a strong heart and I loved seeing that revealed as the film progressed. On the other hand, Dornan's Jan is a scared kid, someone who has an immense fear of death and of killing others. In fact, as the film opens, he can't even fire a bullet at a traitor. Like Josef, that changes quite a bit over the two-hour runtime, and I thought the choices Dornan made as an actor were excellent. He's best known for Fifty Shades of Grey, but I have a feeling that's going to change soon.

The supporting cast is strong as well, with Charlotte Le Bon, Toby Jones, and especially Anna Geislerova taking on meaty roles. Le Bon and Geislerova essentially play pawns in the scheme that Josef and Jan are devising, and at first, it seems like they won't play too much of a role in the plot. But thankfully, they develop their own fascinating relationships with our lead characters and become important players in the story. Ellis and Frewin's screenplay doesn't create too many nuanced characters, but there's not an actor who doesn't make the most of their part. Ellis' direction is steady and efficient, introducing a gritty realism to the proceedings that bleeds through every frame. This is Ellis' biggest film so far by a country mile, and if Anthropoid is any indication, he has a bright future in the business. He has an exceptional eye for tone and mood, and he's also quite good at filming big setpieces.

Speaking of big action scenes, Anthropoid has one of the year's best. It's a shootout that drew comparisons to The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy, and Scarface, from top critics, my dad, and myself, respectively. It's an old-school setpiece, devoid of flashy CGI or goofy antics in favor of gripping tension and horrifying realism. Bullets and bodies fly in equal measure, as a creeping sense of claustrophobia sinks in as the scene goes longer. It's one of the most dazzlingly filmed scenes of the year, shot with verve, energy, and grit. If any moment in Anthropoid demonstrates Ellis' set of skills, it's the climatic showdown between the resistance and the Nazis. It's worth the price of admission alone.

While the final battle is the show-stopper, Anthropoid as a whole is certainly worth your time and money. Sure, there are a few aspects that could be improved upon, but in the grand scheme of things, I think Sean Ellis delivered a distinct, harrowing, and incredibly engaging war film. Dornan and Murphy are spectacular, the tension is palpable, and some of the best scenes are truly stunning. Audiences looking to come out feeling better about the world will probably want to skip this one, but if you're looking for a film with remarkable insight into a forgotten chapter of history, this is for you. It's a film that improves the more I think about it, and where many summer films will wind up being quite disposable, I have a feeling that I won't forget this one any time soon. Anthropoid never hits iconic status, but it still emerges as one of the most surprising films of the summer.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                            (7.7/10)

Images courtesy of Bleecker Street

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