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‘Anthropoid’: Jarring tonal shift fails to derail WWII thriller

Jamie Dornan in "Anthropoid." | Bleecker Street

Inspired by one of the lesser-known chapters from the World War II history books, “Anthropoid” follows two freedom fighters who parachute into Czechoslovakia. Their mission: to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the Reich’s third in command and “the butcher of Prague.”

Sounds like a heart-stopping tale of WWII derring-do? Well, it’s not, at least not initially. Instead, director, co-writer and cinematographer Sean Ellis (“Cashback”) has mounted a moody, subdued tale that is quite jittery (this is meant both literally and figuratively; he is quite fond of shaky “Jason Bourne”-style camerawork). The first hour, in fact, essentially consists of the two soldiers connecting with members of the resistance and wondering whom they can trust. There are lots of darted glances and worried looks: Are they being watched?

Josef (Cillian Murphy) and Jan (Jamie Dornan) find women to essentially act as beards to keep up their covers. Jan’s relationship with girlish Marie (Charlotte Le Bon) quickly grows serious while the connection between Josef and the more worldly Lenka (Anna Geislerová) feels more tenuous. Is this genuine affection or is she simply serving the cause? It’s an interesting dilemma, and the actors are quite good.

The film is also handsomely produced, with a vivid period atmosphere aided by a faded color palette, which adds both an unease and a glowing sense of nostalgia to the proceedings. It’s a compelling paradox.

Ellis tightens things up once the day of the assassination arrives. There is a tense shootout on the street, which eventually leads to an astonishing siege at a church where the men are hiding out. It is exciting and quite effective, but also strangely disconcerting. After the slow-burn buildup, it suddenly feels like we are in another movie, one with a faster pace and more electric style. There are also some graphic Nazi torture sequences (we get to see a woman’s severed head in a bucket) and lots of cyanide-capsule suicides.

The tonal shift — a little “Call the Midwife” here, a little “Inglourious Basterds” there — is jarring, but doesn’t derail the film. Ultimately, “Anthropoid” is quite gripping, even if it feels like two movies in one.

★★★

Bleecker Street presents a film directed by Sean Ellis and written by Ellis and Anthony Frewin. Running time: 104 minutes. Rated R (for violence and some disturbing images). Opens Friday at local theaters.