The Man with the Iron Heart

2017-11-17 08:27

What it's about:

The true story of Project: Anthropoid, where a pair of British soldiers teamed up with a small group of Czech resistance fighters at the peak of the Second World War to assassinate Reinhard Heidrich, one of Hitler's most ruthless generals and a major architect of the Final Solution. 

What we thought:

Based on the historical novel, HhHH by Laurent Binnet  - inevitably, some of this story had to be based on conjecture and even pure fiction as the film will make very clear; but the basic events apparently really did happen – the Man With the Iron Heart originally shared the same title as its source novel but presumably out of wanting to spare everyone the embarrassment of having to try pronounce what is less a word than an exasperated sigh, they wisely opted to settle on this generic but far more comprehensible title.

They could have also called it Anthropoid but, as it so happens, another film, also based on the same book and the same historical events beat it to the punch by coming out just before The Man With the Iron Heart was completed – forcing the latter to delay its release by a year and to forever suffer being known as “that other Operation Anthropoid movie”. 

For some unknown reason, Anthropoid was never released in this country despite having the same plot, its own even more A-list cast and having done the same story first. It is almost universally considered to be the better of the two films but as I have yet to have had the chance to see it, I'm just going to have to judge the Man With the Iron Heart on its own terms. And on its own terms, it's... almost very good.

Straight off the bat, the biggest and most obvious flaw with the Man With the Iron Heart is that it spends half of its running time with Hydrich (played with chilling monstrousness by Jason Clarke) and not only his unspeakably evil military career but his iffy family life with a wife who shares his deplorable views (played no less chillingly by Rosamund Pike) and a bunch of kids who are forced to share their father with the Third Reich. And, really, who cares? 

There's no humanity or complexity to be found in this portrayal of Hydrich – and no doubt, none to be found in the real man either – so aside for the visceral reactions that depictions of the atrocities if the Holocaust still elicit with ease, much of the first half of the film spends its time treading the line between boring and immensely frustrating. It's well made and well acted but it does nothing than a much briefer look at Hydrich terrible deeds wouldn't have done better.

This is all the more frustrating because the second half – or, to be entirely honest, it may well have been the second two thirds – is so, so close to being great. Cedric Jimenez isn't exactly what one would call a visionary director as the look and feel of the film is really nothing we haven't come across before, many times over, but perhaps there is only so much that can be done with this setting before it starts taking on the almost parodic feel of Tarantino's Inglorious Bastards. What Jimenez is quite excellent, though, is at building and maintaining tension through the entire second half of the film that starts fraught and only escalates from there. It's gripping, pulse-pounding stuff that stands tall with the best espionage and war films.

The performances too are very strong as Clarke and Pike continue to be genuinely terrifying throughout, while our heroes are played by an assortment of excellent character actors, including Mia Wasikowska, Jack O'Connell and Jack Reynor. Here's the problem, though, while both Jacks are really perfectly good in their roles, their characters are woefully under-developed and they look so similar here that it becomes all but impossible to tell them apart. Reynor, who was so wonderful in last year's sublimely charming Sing Street, doesn't even have his distinctive Irish accent to rely on here to distinguish him from his fellow Jack.     

This might seem super-nitpicky but it profoundly isn't. Yes, World War II and the Holocaust allows for simple good vs evil divisions in a way that few conflicts do but it's extremely strange that more attention is paid to developing – and, really, ultimately failing to develop – one of the worst Nazis of them all, while spending precious little time developing the clear heroes of the piece. As such, while the film is thrilling in its later sections and the basic nature of the Holocaust means that any depictions of it remain incredibly disturbing (no doubt all the more by my being Jewish) but much of the drama plays out with a real sense of detachment. Dramatisations of real events often have the advantage of being able to pull you further into the people involved but not only does the Man With the Iron Heart not do that, there's a good chance that a documentary might have given us more insight into these men (and occasional women). 

Still, for all of its many flaws and for all that it doesn't come close to the best Holocaust movies, it is not without its moments of visceral power and accomplished storytelling. The story too, absolutely needs to be told – and until recently actually hasn't been very much – but it's certainly not helped by being neither the first nor the only version of this story to come along in recent years.

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