Movie reviews: Hell or High Water, Anthropoid, Ben Hur

Hell or High Water 5/5
Anthropoid 4/5
Ben Hur 2/5

Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) maraud through the Texas rust-belt in Hell or High Water (15A), robbing banks and raising hell, pursued by Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), an aging Texas Ranger relishing the idea of one final showdown to cap his career in style. 

It sounds like an old-fashioned Western, but director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) steers his latest offering into the kind of badlands previously charted by Nicholas Ray in They Live By Night (1949). 

From the first establishing shots of a fly-blown Texan town, with its anti- government graffiti daubed on the walls, we understand Toby and Tanner aren’t knocking off banks for fun: these are good boys gone bad because the other option is to be ground into the dust. 

Chris Pine puts in an affecting turn in the central role, the owner of a parched farm who is separated from his long-suffering wife and children and desperate to redeem what he believes has been a wasted life. 

His relationship with Ben Foster, playing the ex-con Tanner, provides the film’s emotional core, and both are excellent in teasing out the complications and contradictions of brotherly love-hate. 

Indeed, Taylor Sheridan’s script is a sophisticated exploration of grace under pressure as it cross-cuts between the brothers’ increasingly desperate attempts to stay ahead of the law and the implacable resolve of Ranger Hamilton to track them down, regardless of how much he might sympathise with their plight. Hell or High Water is one of the most gripping dramas of the year.

Anthropoid (15A) stars Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan as Josef Gabcík and Jan Kubis, respectively, two Czechs sent from London to Prague in 1942 with a mission to assassinate SS General Reinhard Heydrich, one of the main architects of the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’. 

Written by Anthony Frewin and Sean Ellis, with Ellis directing, Anthropoid is not a conventional war movie: Gabcík and Kubis find themselves in a complex political situation (the Czechs resent the British for Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler in 1938, which allowed Germany to annex Czechoslovakia) and depending for support on a suspicious Czech resistance that is in serious disarray. 

Set against a beautifully shot backdrop of wartime Prague in winter, the film is superb at creating a claustrophobic atmosphere of impending doom, as betrayal lurks around every corner and our assassins find themselves constantly on edge, unable to trust in their allies and doubting their own ability to carry out a mission of such enormity — both are aware that success will mean not only their own death sentences, but result in horrendous reprisals against the Czech people. 

Murphy is hauntingly compelling in what is arguably his most mature performance to date, bringing the required gravitas to a character who is keenly aware of the weight of history, while Dornan provides strong support as a man who is terrified of failing his comrades at the moment of truth. 

The extended climax is both historically accurate and powerfully dramatised, and even those familiar with the story of Operation Anthropoid will likely find it heart-breaking.

The latest remake of Ben Hur (12A) stars Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur, the Jewish prince sentenced to a living death as a galley-slave when accused of treason by his adopted brother, the Roman officer Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell). 

Timur Bekmambetov’s film is a truncated version of the most famous Ben Hur, William Wyler’s 1959 epic, and while this movie begins promisingly — the initial stages neatly outline Judah’s laissez-faire approach to surviving under Roman rule — it quickly becomes apparent the performances aren’t strong enough to bear up under the story’s epic structure. 

Huston is charismatic enough to hold his own as Judah Ben-Hur, but Toby Kebbell’s Messala is little more than snarls and sneers, and it’s difficult to work out why Judah is so devoted to this representative of the overbearing Romans. 

The biggest issue, however, is Bekmambetov appears to have no instinct for the epic elements of the story, or the scope of the storytelling. 

The exceptions are the two main action sequences: the extended scene in which Judah and his fellow slaves row their warship into battle provides a glimpse of the 1959 version’s power, and the iconic chariot race at the end is delivered with style and grit — although even here, and unnecessarily, Bekmambetov overcooks the drama in order to provide something new. 

Jack Huston’s performance offers enough to keep the uninitiated interested, but overall this Ben Hur is a flat and tinny reproduction of one of Hollywood’s most masterful epics.


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