There is a memorial in my local park (Jephson’s Gardens, Leamington Spa) in the shape of a parachute, with seven Czech names on it. It commemorates the parachutists, who were based in Leamington during World War Two, who were flown to Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia with a mission – code name Anthropoid. Their orders were to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking Nazi (third in command, after Hitler and Himmler), the “protector” (how ironic) of Bohemia and Moravia. As well as brutally executing any Czechoslovakians thought to be resisting Nazi occupation, Heydrich was also chief architect of “The Final Solution”. Despite fears of reprisals, the Czech government (exiled in London) wanted to send a message that the Czech people could not be so easily subjugated.
The story of the men given this mission has now been made into a film starring Jamie Dornan (Jan) and Cillian Murphy (Josef), from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, respectively, speaking English with Czech accents. Whilst slightly jarring at first, you do get used to the accents and it is perhaps preferable to having everyone speak in British received pronunciation, which can often happen in historical films where everyone should be speaking languages other than English. More distracting are Dornan’s matinee idol looks and model height – he does look out-of-place squeezing into a tiny cottage and later in the various hiding places he is forced into. However, while he will probably be forever tarnished by the Christian Grey brush, he has shown acting potential in ‘The Fall’. He doesn’t look entirely comfortable in this role, although his character is certainly torn about the mission. An indecision which is partly to do with a romantic sub-plot that has been shoe-horned into this film. After their Uncle (Toby Jones) has arranged a safe house where the parachutists can lay low whilst plotting the assassination, he gravely warns them not to go outside unless they absolutely have to and certainly not together. Well, within five minutes, the pair have arranged a double date with the maid of the house and her friend. The female pair function to give Jan and Josef something to live for and to give them doubts about their suicidal mission. Murphy, on the other hand, delivers the familiar glassy-eyed, coolly detached performance we have come to know and love from his ‘Peaky Blinders’ run – Josef is much more focused on the job in hand and is not thinking about the consequences.
Something more factually accurate, that adds a moral dilemma to the mission, is that Jan and Josef place everyone around them in danger. Mrs Moravec and her son Ata (Bill Milner – unrecognisable from Son of Rambow) provide shelter and courier messages for the resistance. The film does become much more emotionally heightened when scenes of violence and torture come to the fore, after the assassination attempt leads the Nazis to raise Prague to the ground, looking for the culprits.
Although I was really interested in the subject, this film did fall a little flat for me. I kept feeling that I wanted to know more, about Jan and Josef and also the wider historical backdrop. It may have helped to cut back to the Czech government in London, to have further understood their motivation in getting rid of one Nazi, at the cost of thousands of Czechoslovakians. Also, if we had met Heydrich as more of a well-rounded “character” (like Goeth in Schindler’s List), it perhaps would have added an extra dimension to the film. It’s a shame, because I really wanted to like this film, but I have come away feeling quite frustrated and think it will be hard to remember much about it within a few days. Unfortunately, this is not the film the real-life counterparts deserve. Here’s hoping for more successful war films to come (I’m looking at you, Nolan).