Sunday, 29 October 2017

REVIEW: The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci is justly famed for his political satires. With The Thick of It and In the Loop, and latterly the US-set Veep, he has pilloried the absurdity, pettiness and power-hungry games of UK and US politics. Turning to historic Soviet politics, however, involves not just the absurdity of this, but utter horror and brutality. And so The Death of Stalin, while hitting the comedic level of his best material, is also the bleakest and most serious of his political comedies. The tagline, "A Comedy of Terrors," is apt indeed.

It's not that the film isn't funny, simply that the comedy is violently undercut by the oppressive grimness of the story. Still, how could it be otherwise? This is Stalinist Russia, one of the true nightmares of twentieth century totalitarianism, and the power struggle that played out in the aftermath of Stalin's death is living memory for a lot of people who could watch the film today. Kruschchev's rise to power, both brutal and forward-thinking at once, shaped the geopolitics of the latter half of the century. From cruel Chief of Intelligence Beria to the violent Zhukov, these were monstrous people.

But the best way to undercut these people is to mock them, and while Stalin has been the focus of such mockery many times before (although not nearly as much as his ally/nemesis Hitler) it's not often the Soviet cabinet as a whole gets this treatment. Iannucci's approach is to treat them as the squabbling old men that they were, already past their prime by the time Steely Joe died, desperately clinging onto the power they held at his whim. Casting Brits and Americans indiscriminately, the Soviets come across as a ragtag bunch of ageing gangsters.

What a cast, though. The cream of comedic and dramatic actors here. Jeffrey Tambor, who's never anything less than hilarious, is the hangdog-faced deputy Malenkov, who's propelled to supreme power in the wake of Stalin's brain bursting. The exceptional Simon Russell Beale as Beria, the vicious, gleefully cruel spymaster who murdered and raped his way through god knows how many victims, yet with Beale's performance is somehow both terrifying and likeable. The great Michael Palin as devout Stalinist Molotov, the most sympathetic of the characters, and even he denounced his wife as a traitor to maintain political leverage (of course, Palin has always excelled at playing nice bastards). Most brilliant of all, Steve Buscemi as Khruschev himself, the backstabbing party leader who, eventually, even after the close of the film, comes out on top. Until Brezhnev, of course.

Probably the funniest performance, though, is that of Jason Isaacs as General Zhukov, head of the Red Army, which he elects to play with a broad Yorkshire accent and a manic gleam in his eye. Other significant roles include the wonderful Andrea Riseborough as Stalin's daughter Svetlana, Joseph Friend as her hilariously drunken paranoiac brother Vasily, and Olga Kurylenko as the subversive pianist Maria Yudina. Perhaps the greatest turn actually comes from Paddy Considine, who opens the film as a desperate theatre owner under impossible pressure to record and already completed concert for the Premier. His performance sells the utter fear and desperate self-preservation of everyone living in the Soviet state at the time, while being hilarious to boot (with some superb straight-manning from the still-underappreciated Tom Brooke). Not forgetting, of course, Adrian McLoughlin as Stalin himself, portrayed a small, withered man, pathetic even as he commands life and death over all those around him.

Predictably, Russia hates this film, seeing it as a Western attempt to undermine their great history. After all, many Russians still view Stalin as a great social architect and war hero, instead of a power-crazed murderer. At least, they say they do - after all, disagreement likely goes down very poorly. There are films that gain notoriety on the back of this kind of controversy, but The Death of Stalin deserves to be seen on its own merits as a funny, powerful historical satire, with character moments that are equal parts cringe-inducing embarrassment, crushing wit and genuine fear for life and liberty.

I get the feeling The Death of Stalin will be watched for many years to come as a look back at a pivotal moment in history. This is exactly the sort of film that should be made, and if it pisses off the Kremlin, all the better. Just imagine the movies we'll get about Putin, Trump and Kim in sixty or seventy years, assuming we're not living in some irradiated wasteland by then.

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