Skip to main content

How can you run and plot at the same time?

The Death of Stalin
(2017)

(SPOILERS) 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 choses, 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 the 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 familiar 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 months 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), and 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, 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, who 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 good. 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, Dermot Crowley a withering Kaganovich, and Jeffrey Tambor, currently having a seemingly disproportionate amount of attention paid to his behaviour under current 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 with 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”), 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 victim 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.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Well, who’s going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?

Enemy of the State (1998)
Enemy of the State is something of an anomaly; a quality conspiracy thriller borne not from any distinct political sensibility on the part of its makers but simple commercial instincts. Of course, the genre has proved highly successful over the years so it's easy to see why big name producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would have chased that particular gravy boat. Yet they did so for some time without success; by the time the movie was made, Simpson had passed away and Bruckheimer was flying solo. It might be the only major film in the latter's career that, despite the prerequisite gloss and stylish packaging, has something to say. More significant still, 15 years too late, the film's warnings are finally receiving recognition in the light of the Edward Snowden revelations.

In a piece for The Guardian earlier this year, John Patterson levelled the charge that Enemy was one of a number of Hollywood movies that have “been softening us up f…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

You're going to need a nickname, cos I ain't saying that every time.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
(SPOILERS) I had a mercifully good time with Solo: A Star Wars Story, having previously gone from considering it a straight-up terrible idea when first announced, to cautious optimism with the signing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, to abject pessimism with their replacement by little Ronnie Howard, to cautious optimism again with the advent of various trailers and clips. I have numerous caveats, but then that's been par for the course with the series ever since Return of the Jedi, whichever side of good or bad the individual entries end up falling. The biggest barrier to enjoyment, judging by others’ responses, seems to be the central casting of Aiden Ehrenreich; I actually thought he was really good, so the battle for my allegiance was half won right there. No, he isn't Harrison Ford, but he succeeds admirably in making Han Solo a likeable, brash, smug wannabe scoundrel. Less so at being scruffy looking, but you can’t have everything.

It looks as i…

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…