Hollywood loves its heroes, even if it finds it difficult to admit that courage and honor aren’t superpowers. That’s why it’s refreshing to see the shadow of impending doom that hovers, just out of frame, from the earliest moments of “Anthropoid,” director Sean Ellis’s meticulously calibrated account of a 1941 Czechoslovakian resistance plot to assassinate one of the architects of Hitler’s Final Solution: S.S. Gen. Reinhard Heydrich.
As the film opens, Nazi spies have routed out most of the movement’s members when Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) and Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) — soldiers from Czechoslovakia’s army-in-exile — fly from London and parachute into a forest outside Prague with orders from their government. It’s not a smooth landing, and Gabcik gets lacerated by tree branches on his way down, foreshadowing the difficult path that lies ahead.
Aided by co-screenwriter Anthony Frewin, Ellis takes his time in this slow-burning thriller, which often feels more like a character study. The dialogue avoids the kind of grandiose phrases that clutter lesser war films, allowing the film’s heroes to experience both blood-curdling doubt and the fierce strength of their convictions. In a particularly poignant moment, Kubis tells Gabcik, “I have to believe there’s a normal life waiting for us.”
We’re shown glimpses of what this life might look like through Kubis’s budding relationship with Marie, a young woman he meets at their safe house in Prague (played with nuance and restraint by Charlotte Le Bon). Her eyes wide with an eagerness that could be misconstrued as naivete, Marie and her friend Lenka (played with militant grace by Anna Geislerova) agree to act as girlfriends to the men, helping them to look less conspicuous in public. That ruse gradually morphs into real — if precarious — passions.
On the surface, Dornan’s clean-cut charm and Murphy’s brooding detachment mesh well, masking a reservoir of deeper impulses. While there have been countless films made about the Holocaust, “Anthropoid” never feels formulaic — a surprise in a summer release. (With luck, Academy Award voters won’t forget this one.)
Ellis, who’s also the cinematographer, shot on Super 16mm film, underscoring the mood of raw immediacy that pulses throughout the tale. If “Anthropoid” owes a debt to any World War II movie, it’s Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterful “The Army of Shadows,” a stark portrait of the French resistance that’s as gut-wrenching as it is unsentimental. Save for one moment near the end, “Anthropoid” maintains that unflinching power throughout.
It’s giving away nothing to say that Kubis and Gabcik are fighting a losing battle, yet our foreknowledge of their fate only amplifies the virtues of resistance, no matter the outcome. War movies all too often take it for granted that some causes are worth dying for. To have characters grapple with that notion, imperfectly, is nothing short of cathartic.
The movie also boasts one of the greatest shootout scenes since “The Wild Bunch.” But the image that’s seared into my mind is of another sort: a trembling soldier trying desperately to stop shaking long enough to load his gun.
R. At area theaters. Contains graphic violence and disturbing thematic material. 120 minutes.