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

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018)
(SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop.

The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.

Repo Man (1984)
In fairness, I should probably check out more Alex Cox’s later works. Before I consign him to the status of one who never made good on the potential of his early success. But the bits and pieces I’ve seen don’t hold much sway. I pretty much gave up on him after Walker. It seemed as if the accessibility of Repo Man was a happy accident, and he was subsequently content to drift further and further down his own post-modern punk rabbit hole, as if affronted by the “THE MOST ASTONISHING FEATURE FILM DEBUT SINCE STEVEN SPIELBERG’S DUEL” accolade splashed over the movie’s posters (I know, I have a copy; see below).

Look, the last time I was told the Germans had gone, it didn't end well.

1917 (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I first heard the premise of Sam Mendes’ Oscar-bait World War I movie – co-produced by Amblin Partners, as Spielberg just loves his sentimental war carnage – my first response was that it sounded highly contrived, and that I’d like to know how, precisely, the story Mendes’ granddad told him would bear any relation to the events he’d be depicting. And just why he felt it would be appropriate to honour his relative’s memory via a one-shot gimmick. None of that has gone away on seeing the film. It’s a technical marvel, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, as you’d expect, superlative, but that mastery rather underlines that 1917 is all technique, that when it’s over and you get a chance to draw your breath, the experience feels a little hollow, a little cynical and highly calculated, and leaves you wondering what, if anything, Mendes was really trying to achieve, beyond an edge-of-the-seat (near enough) first-person actioner.

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

This is one act in a vast cosmic drama. That’s all.

Audrey Rose (1977)
(SPOILERS) Robert Wise was no stranger to high-minded horror fare when he came to Audrey Rose. He was no stranger to adding a distinctly classy flavour to any genre he tackled, in fact, particularly in the tricky terrain of the musical (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) and science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain). He hadn’t had much luck since the latter, however, with neither Two People nor The Hindenburg garnering good notices or box office. In addition to which, Audrey Rose saw him returning to a genre that had been fundamentally impacted by The Exorcist four years before. One might have expected the realist principals he observed with The Andromeda Strain to be applied to this tale of reincarnation, and to an extent they are, certainly in terms of the performances of the adults, but Wise can never quite get past a hacky screenplay that wants to impart all the educational content of a serious study of continued existence in tandem w…