Saturday 14 January 2017

On DVD: "Anthropoid"

The British writer-director Sean Ellis keeps moving, tricky to pin down but ever honing his craft. In recent years, it's become clear, too, that he's finally picked a side - the right side. He took a major step forward while out in the Philippines making 2013's Metro Manila, a drama of downtrodden lives that suddenly and explosively reconfigured itself as a thriller; now we have Anthropoid, which finds Ellis heading to Prague - or a fine recreation thereof - and back into the past. This is the true story of the Czech resistance operation to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the country's on-the-ground Nazi commander, in the spring of 1942, and more so than the Cruise-engineered heroism of 2008's Valkyrie, Ellis is committed to showing resistance as a perilously messy business, as imperfect as it is essential. One of the two assassins introduced being parachuted into the countryside from Slovakia (Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan) snags a foot on a branch upon landing; their first port of call turns into a bloodbath; and upon reaching Prague, the pair learn their designated handler has been taken away by the authorities. Although they're swiftly adopted by the resistance that remains, a glimpse at the history books will show that getting close to Heydrich - never mind achieving what they've been sent here to do - was a trickier business than anybody expected.

Again, Ellis pulls off two very different movies in one. Anthropoid's first half is a quietly engrossing evocation of a city under siege, watching our heroes bed in and reach out while attempting to protect their cover - a strained business when the female agents placed on their arms at a New Year's Eve party (Charlotte Le Bon and Anna Geislerova) are of a type that would naturally turn heads. It could equally be pointed out that both our assassins have been blessed with killer cheekbones - their real life equivalents looked less like catalogue models - but Murphy and Dornan work well together as a team, pulling each other through despairing funks even as their nervy, downturned countenances help sustain the prevailing doomy mood. Ellis needs them alert come the second half, easily one of 2016's strongest, in which the assassins, all cover blown, seek temporary sanctuary in a church. Here Ellis begins to flex his action muscles once more, the Nazi big guns are wheeled out, and death really does appear to close in on our heroes, frame by frame; it's just a matter of how long they can fend it off before reaching for the cyanide capsules. The result is an unusually tense, tough tribute, and further evidence that Ellis sits among our industry's most improved: one of the few British filmmakers at large to be getting more accomplished with each new release.

Anthropoid is available on DVD through Icon Entertainment from Monday.   

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