(4 / 5)
What do we do when life imitate art to the extent that it renders art redundant?
Well, in short, you look for relevancy elsewhere.
With Trump still in the White House and Brexit still apparently going ahead, the world is too absurd in itself to get much mileage out of trying to take it further. As such, British satirist Armando Iannuci has turned his eye to the peccadilloes of the past. Based on the French graphic novel of the same name, The Death of Stalin finds the same scheming and ineptitude in Soviet Russia as The Thick of It did in British politics – only there the outcome of being out-maneuvered is death over dismissal. This bunch aren’t just fighting for their careers; their fighting for survival.
In having his cast adopt regional accents, or else keep their own,1 Iannucci, who both adapted and directed the film, lends an extra tragicomic slant to these historical figures. Stalin himself (Adrian McLoughlin) is presented, briefly, as a Cockney gangster with a love of westerns; that is until a cerebral haemorrage lays him out in “a puddle of indignity”.
Then there’s Steve Buscemi’s Krushev, plotting reforms on the run – and in the bathroom, and during Stalin’s funeral ceremony. His lead rival, and biggest threat, is Simon Russell Beale’s spymaster Beria, head of the secret police, a leering Machiavellian monster who always has an ace up his sleeve – or another secret prisoner in the NKVD basement. Above both of them there’s ostensibly the new Premier, Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) – vain, weak, pathetic, and more concerned with photo ops than the jockeying for power going on around him. Factionalism may have been a dirty word in Stalin’s Russia, but Stalin’s Russia is on its way out; no matter what the deluded duffer Molotov (Michael Palin) might contend.
Iannucci has assembled a great ensemble cast – Paul Whitehouse’s snide Mikoyan; Paul Chahdi’s camp, bleach-blonde Bulganin – all of whom invest in the absurdity. Their slow-mo entrances into Stalin’s suite serve only to highlight their lack of dignity. That they’re surrounded by grand monuments and statues serves only to heighten the contrast. The only truly impressive figure is that of Jason Isaac’s General Zhukov, who steals the show as the bluff Yorkshire Red Army Commander. Where the rest scheme and scuffle, he alone seems prepared to take action.
The Death of Stalin shows a country in thrall to the whims of one man and what happens when that man is abruptly taken away. Paddy Considine appears as a musical director faced with a musical emergency when Stalin demands a recording of a concerto that has just gone out live – reportedly based on a real-life incident. Failure to comply is unthinkable. Even Stalin’s contemporaries live in a state of constant caution: Krushev’s wife transcribes his drunken recollections about what exactly Stalin did and did not laugh at during the evening’s horseplay. “I’m exhausted”, says Malenkov, “I can’t remember who’s alive or dead.”
Like The Lives of Others played for laughs, in The Death of Stalin the tide of history can turn in civil service toilet. When that tide turns, though, it takes people with it, good and bad alike – tyrants in the making and hardworking civilians. In Soviet Russia, “cleaning house” extends to executing the household staff. In this, the film strikes a balance between comedy and tragedy. For every moment when Rupert Friend – as Stalin’s drunken, foppish army officer son, Vasily – calls someone a “fanny”, or tries to cover up the death of the national ice hockey team in a plane crash, there’s another where, for instance, Stalin’s self-possessed daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), with desperate casualness, asks Beria to magic up an old friend of hers from the gulag.
Absurd and vulgar, Iannucci’s latest is a dark reminder that, though times may change, people and politicians do not.