The Death of Stalin – a review

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Stalin’s funeral – the satire offered is a bit of a hit and miss affair

Armando Iannucci – let’s not forget the OBE – the creator of this darkly-satirical comedy, is a Scot who likes to be called a Scot. But before anybody cheers remember he is apt to defend the BBC, his alma mater, whenever he can.

“Unless you want TV by diktat, defend the BBC” makes that state institution sound a paragon of finest journalism, upholder of all things ethical. He also voted Liberal-Democrat in 2010 but has since felt ‘queasy’ about it. Then again, he has said Trump isn’t a clown, he’s dangerous. He said that at an interview in the UK, not the US.

His trajectory can be traced from Glasgow to student at Oxford University, and then abandoning an ambition to be a priest, he followed his love of comedy. His career move coincided with the rise of the stand-up writer comedian. Good timing.

Iannucci’s portfolio is a list of the most audacious and successful western television comedy shows produced in the last twenty years: The Day Today, a mock news programme – Alan Partridge a character from the series went on to feature in a number of Iannucci’s television and radio programmes including Knowing Me, Knowing You, and I’m Alan Patridge. Then came The Thick of It, and an invitation from HBO in Hollywood to help create Veep for the Seinfeld star Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Everyone a winner, as the fair ground stall owner says, Veep a multi-award winning winner.

In a recent Hollywood interview Iannucci related how he approached the subject of the infamous dictator’s death. “Some of the dramatic scenes I shot slightly in the rhythm of comedy, without being funny. And some of the comic moments I shot in a slightly less comic way, to make the joke play out longer. In terms of how I wanted to make people feel, this is funny but also serious at the same time.”

That’s worth keeping in mind for the film is an uneasy mix of the deadly serious and the tragi-comedic. It looks terrific, the acting is wonderful, the writing is very clever, but ‘laugh out loud’ funny is certainly is not. The subject is far too dark for belly laughs.

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Glaswegian Iannucci, a likeable guy riding on the crest of a comedy wave

Approaching this film I had a number of reservations: it could turn out to be Monty Python silliness in Moscow, and in fact Michael Palin plays a leading role. There are traces of surrealism in it but not so much it deflates the satire. Secondly, I wondered how it would be seen by Russians, a fear unjustified for they bought it unexpurgated.

The other aspect that concerned me was why make the plot specific to Stalin? I can see why writers Iannucci, Schneider, and Martin chose a leader known to have signed the death warrant on millions sent to Gulag work camps, (millions more fought Hitler and died) but even so, a fictional madman is easy to set up in a single scene at the top of a screenplay and let the symbolism flow from there.

Satire remains valid and universal indefinitely if based on human nature rather than actual events. Berthold Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a razor sharp parable deconstructing Hitler and his Nazi thugs dressed up for the stage as Chicago hoodlums, a deadly comedy as pertinent now as it was when premiered in 1941.

Peter Ustinov’s Mittel-Europa comedy of the Cold War, Romanoff and Juliet, one family communist, the other capitalist, encapsulates the outcome of a clash of doctrines. Orwell had the good sense to make Animal Farm universal in application, deriding communist haters who thought it only about Stalin’s Soviet Union. “It’s all revolutions!” he corrected.

With The Death of Stalin, based on Frenchman Fabien Nury’s graphic novel, Iannucci’s gone in a more obvious direction, back in time to 1950s Moscow and the ensuing chaos left by the passing of the former Soviet leader.

Stalin was a small man, about 5′ 8″, a few inches shorter that Harry S. Truman. President Truman called him “that little squirt” adding “he’s honest, and really smart”.

Stalin had a deep pockmarked face from an early bout of near fatal smallpox. One arm was shorter than the other, unable to straighten at the elbow the result of a clash with a horse, and his shoulders sloped severely, carefully camouflaged for public appearances and photographs, his lack of height by high heels, his shoulders by padded jackets, photographers and artists colluding in the image of a powerful father of the nation.

Stalin was not Russian but Georgian. He altered his birth name to one meaning ‘man of steel’. He ruled the Soviet Union by a network of spies, and a ruthless ability to banish and vanish opponents. (In the UK we use the state media and right-wing press for assassination, plus the occasional shot to the head from an officially sanctioned marksman, Ulster trained.) The result was Stalin’s doctors were terrified of treating him as he lay dying.

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In the scheme of things the people are expendable

The film begins with a true incident. History books tell us Stalin caught the end of a live radio concert from Soviet pianist Maria Yudina, and forced her and the entire orchestra to replay and record the full concert for him in the middle of the night, there and then.

That story is actually where Iannucci’s ensemble comedy begins, with a discombobulated concert director, (Paddy Considine) forcibly corralling the audience back to their seats. Calmly, he tells them, “Don’t woooorry, nobody is going to get killed” before finally losing his nerve to scream: “Sit down! Do not defy me!”

Two things stuck me immediately; actors speak in their own natural accent, there’s no clunky stage Russian. No need to recoil for no actor pronounces Russian as Rosh-ay-aan. But speaking in broad Lancastrian or cockney or New York Bronx is distracting. The acting is so good, however, you soon accept it.

The photography is first rate, giving us an impression of vast over-decorated rooms, heavy wooden furniture, and male stolidity. Normally, comedies get conventional visual treatment accompanied by bright lighting. Here, the lighting gives us a real feel for the Kremlin before The USSR discovered its economy was as shaky as western capitalism.

The scene: It’s a typical night in the Soviet capital but inside the Kremlin the air is fraught with paranoia. Stalin’s cabinet – Nikita Khrushchev, (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov, (Jeffrey Tambor), Vyacheslav Molotov, (Michael Palin) and Lavrentiy Beria, (Simon Russell Beale) – do their best to ingratiate themselves with their glorious leader.

They click their heels and run to his side when he wants to watch a John Wayne movie which he does without warning. They take their insecurities home with them. Khrushchev tells his wife the jokes he told Stalin. “I made a joke about farmers. He laughed. I made a joke about the Navy. He didn’t laugh.” She writes in her journal “No more Navy jokes”.

When Stalin falls into a coma and lies in his own urine – this actually happened – no one will enter the room. Everyone suppresses their joy but none dare drop their loyalty act lest those around note names, especially Berio head of the torture and killing squads of the USSR secret police, NKVD.

Though relieved the monster is dying none can relax for each is watching their backs. Who will make a play to replace Stalin? A doctor must be called but are there any still alive that are any good? “What if we get a bad doctor?” someone suggests. “If Stalin survives he is a good doctor, if he dies no one will know he was a bad doctor … and we can kill the doctor.”

Iannucci’s television work exposed the foibles, dissembling, and betrayals of political life is both topical and ephemeral. But the seriousness of events depicted here has Iannucci reaching for something more substantial than laughs, something more lasting than an episode of Spitting Image.

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Iannucci waits patiently for the set up to be completed

There’s no one performance to single out, it’s a fine piece of ensemble work. Each character is given a memorable line and scene to tell us who they are and how they see their existence. Tambor as the weak Malenkov urinates against a tree, saying, “When I piss, I try to make eye contact with an officer. It ruins their day.”

Andrea Riseborough as Stalin’s scatter-brained daughter Svetlana interrupts her own teary monologue to complain about a lamp on a chair – “Who would put a lamp on a chair?” she asks, as if a distraught heroine out of a Jane Austin novel.

Vasily, (Rupert Friend) Stalin’s son, demands his status be afforded a eulogy at the state funeral of his father, and so he duly composes a list of boring place names that he thinks his father represented and loved.

Khrushchev and Molotov carry on about the treasonous bitch Polina, (Molotov’s wife), thinking she’s dead, until Beria produces her. “Oh, Polina, it’s so great to see youuuu!” they whine like long lost lovers. Those moments are amusing but not guffaw inducing probably because they are artificially constructed. In fact, the film is amusing start to finish, our grins dropped when we witness the horror of firing squads.

There is very little drama in the narrative, it often seems like bits of The West Wing set in the Kremlin. In presentation style it’s very English, the machinations of the Politburo reduced to a comedy of manners.  The direction is faultless; so, a passable success under his belt has Iannucci chosen another political target for his next cinematic project?

Erm no.

He has signed up to direct a version of David Copperfield. As I said, The Death of Stalin is terribly, terribly English. Oh, well. C’est la vie.

  • Star rating: Three 
  • Cast: Steve Buscemi, Rupert Friend, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Jason Issacs, Simon Russell-Beale, Paul Whitehouse, Olga Kurylenko
  • Director: Armando Iannucci
  • Writers: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin
  • Cinematography: Zac Nicholson
  • Music: Christopher Willis
  • Duration: 1 hour 46 minutes
  • RATING CRITERIA
  • 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?
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