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Posts Tagged ‘The Death of Stalin’

If you want to get on in your career, it doesn’t hurt to have a memorable name, and on this point at least Armando Iannucci has got nothing to worry about. I suppose that being a key collaborator in the careers of Steve Coogan, Christopher Morris, and Lee and Herring can’t help, either, nor can being variously the creator, producer and director of TV and radio shows and films like The Mary Whitehouse Experience, The Saturday Night Armistice, The Thick of It, In the Loop, and Veep. Apart from the Alan Partridge movie a couple of years ago, most of Iannucci’s work over the last decade or so has been mainly in the area of political satire, of both the British and American systems. You would have thought that the unravelling disasters taking place in both countries at the moment would give him plenty of raw material to work with. Perhaps it’s a little curious, then, that Iannucci’s new film is a historical piece about Russia. It’s still a comedy, although the title might suggest otherwise: his new film is entitled The Death of Stalin.

The year is 1953 and Joseph Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin) has been the unquestioned ruler of the Soviet Union for decades, a figure whose very name provokes panic and alarm amongst everyone else in the country. Stalin rules through fear, as is made clear when he requests a recording of a concert at the start of the film – Andreyev (Paddy Considine), the organiser, is horrified to discover the recording was not made, and is forced to re-stage the event under farcical conditions – people are dragged in off the street to bulk up the audience, the soloist has to be bribed, a new conductor brought in in his pyjamas, and so on. It’s hilarious, but the vein of terror running through it all is genuine, and it sets the tone for the rest of the film.

However, Stalin then suffers a massive stroke, throwing the status quo in the USSR into question, and provoking frenetic jockeying for position amongst his various courtiers. First off the blocks is security chief Beria (Simon Russell Beale), who has the advantage of being in charge of the secret police and the death lists, but close behind him are several others, including deputy leader and supposed heir apparent Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), minister for Labour Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley), and Communist party chief Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi – I don’t know about you, but as long as I’ve been aware of Steve Buscemi as an actor, I’ve been thinking ‘There’s a guy whose career will not be complete until he’s played Nikita Khrushchev.’). The presence on the scene of Stalin’s troublesome children (Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough) does not help matters much, either. As Stalin passes away and the funeral arrangements are made, who will manage to establish their grip on the levers of power in the USSR?

It is perhaps not entirely surprising that The Death of Stalin is unlikely to get a release in Russia itself, with Russian commentators announcing it is a ‘nasty send-up’ and a ‘planned provocation’ – Stalin himself was recently voted the greatest person in history in a Russian poll (Vladimir Putin came second, by the way). Even some British viewers have been critical of the film’s very flexible approach to historical fact – Beria was not head of the NKVD in 1953 (not least because the NKVD itself ceased to exist in 1946), nor was Molotov (Michael Palin) the foreign minister at the time.

That said, I doubt anyone watching The Death of Stalin will long be under the impression that this is intended to be a rigorously accurate historical reconstruction. Everyone involved is using their ‘normal’ voice, which for Buscemi means a Brooklyn accent, for Tambor one from California, and for Palin the sounds of Sheffield – the only real exception is Jason Isaacs, who comes on halfway through as a medal-festooned Marshal Zhukov, with a broad Yorkshire accent. It’s not as if the actual dialogue is any more plausible – ‘Phew, it’s been a busy old week,’ observes Anastas Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse), having just participated in the execution and then incineration of a colleague. Obviously, much of this is done for comic effect – ‘All of you can kiss my Russian ass!’ cries Malenkov at one point – but it’s surely also sending a signal that we are not supposed to take it too seriously as a piece of history.

That said, of course, one wonders what the point of the film is, and what point Iannucci and his co-writers are trying to make. Is it really just a film about dysfunctional politics, as he has suggested? As previously noted, the world isn’t exactly short of real-life examples of that at the moment. If the film is making specific points about the Trump regime or the Brexit fiasco they are very heavily veiled, and one has to say that comparing Donald Trump to Stalin would be a little harsh (although given Stalin’s reputed degree of political skill, it might not be entirely fair on the Soviet leader, either).

Perhaps it’s just the case that this scenario offers plenty of opportunity for satire and a selection of characters whom many people sort-of know – I’m no expert on Soviet history, but I still know a bit about people like Molotov, Zhukov and Beria (even if only because a fictional version of Molotov is a major character in WorldWar and Beria is mentioned a lot in From Russia with Love). On the other hand, it’s not as if the film-makers aren’t aware of some of the horrors perpetrated under the Soviet regime, because they are crucial to the atmosphere (and occasionally, plot) of the film. Mostly these are handled ‘straight’ – we see a purge under way, with the terror and blood involved shown unflinchingly – but on the other hand, the potential for jet-black comedy is often fully exploited: for example, one of the problems involved in finding medical attention for the ailing Stalin is the fact that all the qualified doctors have been sent to Siberia.

I don’t know. This is a very funny film, the blackest of black farces, filled with great lines and cherishable comic performances from a terrific ensemble cast. But it’s still slightly uncomfortable and rather unsettling to watch, simply because it takes a situation which arguably wasn’t funny at all, and reworks it as a source of humour. This is one of the funniest films I’ve seen this year. It has absolutely no right to be. Perhaps that’s the point. Doing The Death of Stalin as a straight drama would probably have resulted in something so bleak and depressing it would be almost unwatchable; reworking the story as a knockabout, profane comedy at least makes it accessible, while not quite losing track of the fact that this is a film making some very serious points in the most roundabout way imaginable.

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