The Death of Stalin
Armando Iannucci’s previous big-screen effort, In the Loop, wasn’t, I felt, quite as effective as the short-sharp-sniggers its tighter TV companion The Thick of It delivered. With The Death of Stalin, the only common ground is that he’s still immersing himself in politics. Which, let’s face is it, is a substantial amount of common ground, as both follow a procession of ineptitude, backstabbing, power grabs and self-preservation. What makes the The Death of Stalin particularly stand out, though, is that it isn’t just very funny, it also works as a thriller.
One can, if one so chooses, impress upon the picture stunning topicality, much as attempts have been made with the seemingly innocuous Paddington 2. But Iannucci’s more than willing to admit Stalin’s genesis and production came both pre-Trump and pre-Brexit, making it “strangely relevant in a way I wasn’t expecting”.
Which rather illustrates that this kind of tale, well-told and with a flourish of barbs, can apply itself to any climate; as much as we may wish to see a particular moment – invariably the current one – as the worst ever, they more usually represent slightly rearranged furniture or more overt targets. Likewise, the “fake news” of false narratives, suddenly a talking point because it has been characterised by a catchy phrase, as if it hasn’t been common currency since the first printing press, and before.
Iannucci’s take on the death of the dictator is replete with trademark verbosity, spectacularly colourful insults, broad, familiar character types (often buffoonish or abusive/splenetic, or both) encountering escalating frustrations in their attempts to smooth over troubled waters. But, while obviously a comedy at first glance, he doesn’t attempt to disguise or diminish the subject matter’s more serious, darker (much darker) undercurrents, striking a deftly farcical balance that puts one in mind of more Strangelovian ventures.
The absurdity inherent in the story is, by Armando’s account, unvarnished, with elements sometimes even downplayed as too much (Field Marshal Zhukov actually had more medals than that; the opening, with a masterfully frustrated Paddy Considine as the head of Radio Moscow desperately trying to re-stage the evening’s concert performance so Stalin can have a recorded copy, is purportedly true – albeit it occurred in 1944 – only compounded when one learns that not only was a second conductor brought in but also a third; the first replacement was drunk).
The time frame has also been compressed. It took Stalin four days to die from stroke; it was more than three months later that Beria was arrested and another six before he was executed. Beria and his immediate power grab is effectively the focus of the movie, even though Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) is the lead protagonist (I’d hesitate to say “hero”, but as presented, he’s more moderate and practical than his peers).
Simon Russell Beale, who does relatively little film and TV work (he was George Smiley in Radio 4’s Le Carré adaptations) offers a compellingly duplicitous Beria, a venomous and twisted portrait of the man Stalin proudly referred to as the Soviet Union’s Himmler: his chief torturer and compiler of death lists (although, apparently, he actually engaged in fewer purges than his predecessor; these things are relative, of course).
Beria (previously played by Bob Hoskins and David Suchet, while Philip Madoc based the War Lord on Beria in Doctor Who story The War Games,) was in charge of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, a primary tool for enforcing terror and putting him in an ideal position to assert control. Iannucci was astutely aware of the potential of taking a relatively unknown actor (outside of theatre) and placing him in the role of a relatively unknown but key motivating force.
Beria, is funny – of course he is; this is Iannucci – but in a hollow, goading manner, lacking even the ameliorating quality of Malcolm Tucker (where there’s at least discernible reason for his volcanic spleen – all around him are idiots); Beria’s an entirely irredeemable, sadistic bully, a paedophile and rapist. He’s someone whom, without even knowledge the grim details, you want to see delivered his comeuppance within the first few minutes of being in his company (even though, or perhaps because, it’s entirely and pointedly without recourse to due legal process, so reflecting his own modus operandi).
Beria’s art is to throw others off balance, taking delight in pushing and pulling them in whichever direction he chooses on a whim, suggesting allegiance or treason depending on the moment. All to Khrushchev’s increasing exasperation. This is a prize Buscemi role; I can’t remember when he last dug into a part this strong. Certainly, more than a decade, and he’s ably supported by committee members exhibiting various degrees of incompetence (although, Iannucci stresses that part of what fascinates about the regime is its very competence, of a machine out of control).
Paul Whitehouse and Paul Chahidi make a mirthfully mocking double act as Mikoyan and Bulganin, while Dermot Crowley is a withering Kaganovich. Jeffrey Tambor, currently having a seemingly disproportionate amount of attention paid to his behaviour thanks to prevailing pack-dog conditions – he’s certainly attracting far more column inches than Bill Clinton – draws on his portrayal of Hank in The Larry Sander Show as a blithe idiot inflated by his prospective role as puppet premier (the only iffy element here is that Malenkov’s occasionally invited to display cunning, so introducing an element of inconsistency to the character).
Michael Palin’s presence as Molotov draws attention to the almost Python-esque lunacy of some of the scenarios; on release of his wife Polina (Diana Quick), whom he believed to have been killed (a slight exaggeration, as Molotov was aware she was alive, imprisoned and then exiled, with news occasionally relayed to him by Beria), he is caught between joy at her return and toeing the line of denouncing her.
This vacillation and fear of saying what you think and saying what you think you should say, and even not even being sure which is which, continues into a meeting of the Central Committee in which those present show reluctance to vote in a manner that may or may not suggest loyalty to Stalin, guided by an extremely long-winded monologue from Molotov circles back and round as it is continues.
Fine as the Central Committee parts and players are, it’s Jeremy Isaacs who steals the show in barnstorming fashion as Field Marshal Zhukov, entering in explosive slow motion and mouthing off fearlessly and coarsely with blunt Yorkshire tones (it has been much remarked on that Iannucci made no demands of Eastern European accents, and it’s definitely to the benefit of the naturalness of the comedy, albeit Isaacs is putting on an accent). There’s a priceless scene in which Khrushchev goes to Zhukov for support and latter responds that he will have to report him for such plotting, before making it clear it’s a wind up (“Look at your fucking face”).
The casual manner in which change of regime leads to a new list of targets (on Beria’s part), with Stalin’s staff and guard executed (including doubles), extends to the danger posed to his children. Adrian Mcloughlin’s Stalin is a vulgar gang boss with penchant for westerns, while Rupert Friend’s Vasily is contrastingly a spoilt, drunken brat who fails to recognise the precariousness of his now unsupported positon. Andrea Riseborough as Sventlana, in contrast, gradually comes to understand.
If there’s a failing in the character work, it’s that Iannucci’s unable to deal in kind with the female roles; Friend is hilariously unrestrained as Vasily, constantly attempting to shoot someone or disrupt situations, but Svetlana is an altogether more sombre part, and combined with Olga Kurylenko’s Maria Yudina, whose pivotal role derives from the graphic novel La Mort de Staline, upon which Death is based, Iannucci falls into the trap of casting beautiful actresses – I’m guessing he’s a big fan of Oblivion – and having them eclipsed by the grandstanding of their male co-stars.
The screenplay, credited to Iannucci and previous collaborators David Scheider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows, is as expectedly gag packed as anything he’s done previously, boasting memorable line after memorable line, many of them inherently combative, and the scenarios tend to successively outdo themselves for darkly comic value (attempts to get a doctor to examine Stalin are hampered by his having had all the good ones rounded up and executed; this appears to be based on the Doctors’ Plot episode).
Elsewhere, there’s no making light of what transpires (informed as it is by “the underlying tension and anxiety of twenty years of not knowing if you’d live through the night”). Events such as in the massacre initiated by the NKVD – Khrushchev reversing Beria’s decision to close off the city, having correctly calculated the bloody consequences – who open fire when mourners break through barricades to see Stalin’s body. And the ceremony by which one of Beria’s young rape victims is returned to her parents (with a bunch of flowers, a Beria ritual, the intended implication being a consensual congress). Elsewhere still, his farcical instincts lead to uproarious results, from a succession of committee members attempting to avoid standing or kneeling in their fallen leader’s piss when inspecting the body, to Khrushchev unsuccessfully attempting to engineer a discussion with Beria while standing in state around Stalin.
The Death of Stalin is already being bestowed best of year awards, and I expect that will only gather pace, and deservedly so. Its writer-director has other plans going forward, however; it will be interesting to see how Iannucci fares divested of the raiment of satire for his much-cherished next project, a film adaptation of David Copperfield.