Friday, August 12, 2016

Anthropoid: Grim, fact-based war drama

Anthropoid (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for violence and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

Terrible title, taut thriller.

And historical authenticity doesn’t necessarily justify the choice. Nor does historical authenticity conceal another issue.

Having parachuted into Czechoslovakia only the night before, Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan,
left) a
nd Josef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) steal a truck in order to reach Prague, where they are to
link up with resistance fighters
To cite another recent example ... despite the care with which 2000’s The Perfect Storm was assembled, I couldn’t overcome the core paradox:

Sebastian Junger’s book — and, thus, William D. Wittliff’s screenplay — were based on an actual event that left no survivors. Ergo, everything we watched was no more than an educated presumption of what actually happened: a narrative conceit that can’t help pulling us out of the story at every significant juncture.

This is never a problem with dramatic fiction, which allows us to simply go with the flow; we accept the saga on its own merits. But no matter how persuasively George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg delivered their dialogue — no matter how heroically they behaved — it was impossible to accept things at face value. Were the men in question really that brave? Actually that selfless?

Similar questions emerge during the course of Anthropoid, director Sean Ellis’ often gripping account of a World War II incident that forever changed the fate of Czechoslovakia, and quite likely altered the direction of the entire war. Ellis and co-writer Anthony Frewin have developed their script from what is known about “Operation Anthropoid,” and while the clandestine mission’s preparation and outcome are the stuff of recorded history, much of this storyline can’t be any better than speculation.

Whether that’s vexing enough to be an issue, will be up to the individual viewer. It’s easy to imagine that things may have gone down this way, and that might be sufficient. Ellis certainly draws persuasive performances from most of his cast — with one unfortunate exception — and there’s no denying the suspenseful nobility inherent in WWII resistance fighters who risked everything to thwart Nazi advances.

The film begins in December 1941, three years after the Allies’ notorious “Munich Agreement”: the act of appeasement that passively allowed Hitler to take over Czechoslovakia without a shot being fired. Two soldiers from the London-based Czechoslovakian army-in-exile — Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan) and Josef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) — parachute back into their occupied homeland, and carefully make their way to the few individuals who remain in the underground resistance.

They reach a safe house, where they’re sheltered by Mr. and Mrs. Moravec (Pavel Reznícek and Alena Mihulová) and their teenage son, Ata (Bill Milner), the latter studying to be a concert violinist. The newcomers report to resistance leaders Ladislav Vanek (Marcin Dorocinski) and “Uncle” Hajský (Toby Jones), at which point the mission is revealed: Jan and Josef have been sent to assassinate SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, the so-called “Butcher of Prague,” and one of the primary architects of the Holocaust.

And, perhaps more importantly, the Reich’s third in command, behind only Hitler and Himmler.

Vanek regards the plan as sheer lunacy, quite accurately pointing out that fewer than a dozen men never could get close enough to Heydrich, given the armed escorts who follow him everywhere. Vanek also has every reason to mistrust a scheme put into action by the same Allies who blithely gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler.

To say nothing of the worst fear: Whether successful or not, what sort of reprisal would the Nazis unleash, after such an incident?

Such concerns notwithstanding, Hajský and the other resistance fighters agree to cooperate. Preparations occupy the next five months, at which point...

...but that would be telling.

Ellis gets his film off to a slow start, the first half absorbed with clumsily contrived love interests. Jan falls with improbable swiftness for Marie (Charlotte Le Bon), a young woman who helps in the Moravec household; Josef’s developing bond with Lenka (Anna Geislerová), a shrewd resistance fighter, is more prickly.

While seeking the solace of passion certainly is reasonable under such circumstances, Ellis’ handling of same feels like time-wasting stalling: particularly since we get such a superficial sense of neighborhood life under Nazi rule. Granted, it’s horrible, but that’s too simplistic; given Heydrich’s indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, simple challenges such as the steady acquisition of food become paramount. We’re curious.

And how do the undocumented Jan and Josef maintain their cover for five months, particularly since they’re so frequently out on the streets? Instead of addressing such issues, we waste time watching Jan behave like a lovesick schoolboy.

Part of the problem is that Dornan lacks the acting chops necessary for his role’s emotional complexities. Early on, we see Jan balk when given the opportunity to shoot somebody who could expose them: a weakness that troubles Josef. Ellis clearly intends to make a running theme of Jan’s struggle to become braver, but Dornan never sells this inner battle.

Unlike virtually all the other actors cast as resistance fighters, Dornan simply doesn’t look like he belongs; his line readings and body language too frequently feel like the uncertain work of an unrehearsed understudy.

Particularly when placed alongside Murphy, who looks and sounds every inch a Czech soldier. The long undersung Irish actor has a lengthy career of wholly immersive performances, whether in vicarious popcorn fluff (2005’s Red Eye) or mind-bending science fiction (2010’s Inception). His work here is equally precise, Josef a multi-faceted warrior who struggles to conceal his softer side, but never quite succeeds. In a word, he’s fascinating.

The same can be said of Harry Lloyd, Václav Neužil and Jiří Šimek, who with Dorocinski and Jones quite compellingly play the other resistance fighters.

Prague-born Geislerová is equally convincing as Lenka, a woman of barely repressed fury who loathes the Nazi invaders with every breath, and resents the impertinence of “outsiders” who profess to know what’s best for her country. She shares many quietly powerful scenes with Murphy, none better than when Lenka surprises Josef with her firearm familiarity.

Le Bon’s Marie is a softer character, but no less intriguing. Initially, Marie is all effervescent enthusiasm, caught up in the giddy excitement of A Secret Mission. It feels right, given her youth ... just as it feels right when events inevitably force her to re-evaluate. Le Bon ably delivers one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments.

But it’s only one of many. Interpersonal trivialities vanish once Ellis kicks his second act into gear, which — with able assists from editor Richard Mettler and soundtrack composer Robin Foster — builds to a furiously suspenseful climax.

Production designer Morgan Kennedy does a magnificent job of re-creating 1940s Prague, to a degree that feels spooky. Special effects supervisors Kamil Jafar and Nick Drew must have rendered assistance in cases where actual locations — and particularly distant city panoramas — no longer existed, but it’s impossible to tell where physical sets yield to CGI artifice.

The most spectacular set isn’t entirely a set at all: Portions of the Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral — where a key firefight actually took place — are used for the climax ... which must have given the actors and film crew more than a little pause.

Ellis, a true multi-hyphenate, also handles cinematography, employing a slightly grainy film stock that adds verisimilitude, and often using hand-held cameras to convey a sense of being “on the ground” with the story’s protagonists.

The result, despite a lethargic first act, is a solid drama that spotlights a mostly forgotten chapter during World War II. But summer seems an unlikely time for such a film to draw an audience; I fear it’ll be lost amid noisier Hollywood fare.

Which would be a shame. Fictionalized or not, Anthropoid deserves an audience.

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