Armando Iannucci’s new, ferociously sharp and funny tragicomedy explores power-grabbing among top level Russian ministers, in the aftermath of the titular event. The Death of Stalin has drawn many responses along the lines of ‘a film for our times’ and ‘particularly relevant given today’s headlines’. The implication being that Iannucci, creator of The Thick of It and Veep, and director of 2009’s brilliant In the Loop, masterfully read the zeitgeist and conjured a farce appropriate for the era of Trump and a newly meddling, Putin-led Kremlin.
The key to Iannucci’s success (other than the obvious: bone-dry wit and volleys of caustic one-liners) is the same reason his work will remain relevant long into the future. The writer/director is, perhaps ironically – given the barefaced cynicism that permeates most of his work – a bit of a humanist. Or at least a person whose focus lies with people struggling to make it through the day, determined to do the best they can.
This attitude, prevalent throughout his work, is the reason his approach, while unquestionably British in sensibility, is pliable and universal. The monstrously entertaining spin doctor Malcolm Tucker (from The Thick of It and In the Loop) is the extremity of this ‘struggle through the day’ narrative. He’s always in a maelstrom, always in crisis management mode, always fighting fire with fire, and despite the chest-thumping and sharp tongue, always struggling.
Most of Iannucci’s other characters are reasonable, or reasonable-ish people, corroded and corrupted by a terrible system, where arguably the most terrible thing is that these people they have allowed themselves to be corrupted in the first place; to allow they values to be so compromised. That system has never been more shocking, or more brutally farcical than in The Death of Stalin.
The drama is farcical and the comedy hurts. The writing and direction radiate white hot intensity, and the performances sizzle.
This semi-historical film begins at an orchestral performance, where a radio producer (Paddy Considine) is terrified to hear – directly from the man himself – that Stalin wants to listen to a recording of the performance that just took place. Small problem: it wasn’t recorded. And, having just finished, half of the audience have left.
The producer scrambles to his feet, running into the room screaming, crying out to lock the doors and declaring a state of “musical emergency.” A new conductor is needed, so they grab the “finest and nearest” (emphasis on that last word) who is in his pajamas. Bodies are also required to fill the room, for the acoustics, so they visit people’s homes and drag out common folk – who assume they are being taken to the gulag.
It is a terrific opening, layered and and farcical, scene-setting from a left-of-centre place: far from the top echelons of power, and quite a way from the bottom. The focus, when it comes to panic and paranoia, is among a clique of government officials who are not so much relieved by the loss of their leader as thoroughly displaced by it.
These absurdly self-conscious people have learned to watch their tongues. Communist Party secretary Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) even gets his wife to write down everything he says, as well as how the dictator responds (including which of his jokes get the best laughs) so he can study the notes and alter his behaviour.
When Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) drops to the floor in his dacha, early in the piece, the simple act of getting a doctor isn’t simple at all, given the dictator has thrown all the good ones in jail. When the possibility of getting a “bad doctor” is nervously floated, the question is asked: “What if he recovers and finds out?” To which Krushchev responds: “If he recovers, then we got a good doctor.”
This kind of droll to-and-fro permeates the script (co-written by Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin) in various contexts and in varying degrees. Iannucci keeps attention tightly focused around the politicians, which protects the film from racial caricature (it is ultimately about power and absurdity, not Russians) and from punching down. The top brass include a theoretically next in line deputy, the nervous and needy Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), the brutal and scheming enforcer Laventri Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and loyalist Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin).
What a film. What an achievement. The drama is farcical and the comedy hurts.
Occasionally there are visions of common people, to remind us of the dangers of top level bureaucracy; the terrible things that filter down to the bottom. Without this, the behaviour of the primary characters might have existed in a harmless vacuum: a sandbox of snarky wordplay, devoid of real-world repercussions. Nothing, of course, could have been further from the truth. Eventually, without giving anything anyway, the clique – or at least components of it – self-combust, as the politics and power-grabbing become increasingly brutal. The choice, as one character puts it, lies between death and revenge.
What a film. What an achievement. The drama is farcical and the comedy hurts. The writing and direction radiate white hot intensity, and the performances sizzle. In its ferocious grasp of absurdity, its story of petulant fiends with dangerous powers, and its stage-like focus on scenes and set pieces, The Death of Stalin evokes some of cinema’s finest political satire – including a certain film about a doctor called Strangelove, directed by Stanley someone or other. Iannucci has created one for the ages.
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