The Death of Stalin – Film Review by Paddy McGovern
Director: Armando Iannucci
Writers: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider
Stars: Jason Isaacs, Rupert Friend, Andrea Riseborough
Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, adapted by Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin from a French graphic novel series by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, combines sharp satirical comedy with the darkest terror. While the days immediately preceding Stalin’s demise and the preparation for his funeral provide the film’s focus, it in fact evokes the entire reign of terror of ‘Uncle Joe’.
The fear of offending Stalin’s regime, however inadvertently, so long deeply ingrained in every Soviet citizen, knowing that a wrong word or a misinterpreted joke can land you in in the infamous torture dungeons of Lubyanka prison, does not evaporate with Stalin’s last breath. Could he be still alive? If dead, could he be resuscitated and if so, what would happen to those who had announced his death? Perhaps it is yet another twisted loyalty test. Maybe someone as all powerful as Beria could bring him back to life? After all, there is no point in turning to doctors; all the good ones have been killed or sent to Siberia as enemies of the revolution.
Stalin’s inner circle of obsequious lackeys is catapulted into panic about how to handle the aftermath of the Dear Leader’s demise: the funeral, public reaction, the power play among themselves, the settling of old scores. One by one they are revealed as pathetic, unprincipled and unscrupulous. Years of deferring to Stalin, regardless of how demented the barbarity inflicted on their own people, have rendered them spineless cowards, willing to say and do whatever will save their skins. At a meeting of the Central Committee, the words “no problem” can be retracted and re-presented as meaning “NO! Problem!”, as hands rise or fall – or just waver – around the table. The film abounds in such delicious moments combining comedy with menace. An announcement that a performance will be recorded for Stalin makes one person feel he should stand and clap, so the others feel compelled to do so. The problem being when and how should the applause stop? And who can risk significance being read into the stopping.
The casual, routine brutality of the Soviet regime is shown in unblinking, but not over-graphic, detail. A careless word or a misinterpreted remark could mean torture and/or deportation. A son will betray his father to save his own skin. A man, fearing the police are at his door, begs his wife to say whatever she needs to say in order to save herself. All decency has vanished. Even a senior member of the government, Molotov, will denounce his wife, agreeing that she deserved to be killed as a traitor to the cause. As Molotov, Michael Palin epitomises how the terror has undermined integrity. Superficially jovial, underneath he is no different from the others. It is a great performance.
In fact, the entire cast is just superb. Steve Buscemi plays Khrushchev (he of the Cuban missile crisis, ten years later) starting out as a jovial good-old-boy but ending up at the top of a very unsavoury pile. As Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (who in real life ended up in USA) Andrea Riseborough comes across as an almost hysterical daddy’s girl. Her brother Vasily, a bumptious, empty-headed tippler, is Rupert Friend, better known to fans as Peter Quinn on the television series, Homeland. Jeffrey Tambor’s Malenkov, is a pallid, puffy-faced coward, his self-doubt highlighted by his ludicrous black wig and his fussing over which touched-up photograph shows him to best advantage. It is a gloriously damning portrayal. Jason Isaacs is war hero Zhukov, a bluff, no-nonsense military man, decent enough but just as ruthless as the entire circle.
Above all, the film belongs to Simon Russell Beale as the extraordinarily creepy police chief, Beria, like an inflated toad on steroids, radiating malice and depravity. His beautiful, quiet diction piles on the menace. The stage actor’s portrayals of Shakespeare’s arch-villains Richard lll, Macbeth and Iago will have prepared him well for this role, as indeed will his acclaimed playing of Stalin himself in John Hodge’s Collaborators at London’s National Theatre. Long years of studying the duplicity of psychopathically evil men seem to have culminated in his Beria, a performance that is – in the fullest sense of a much overused word – stunning.
Ianucci’s enduring concern with power and its abuse has made him one of the most trenchant critics of the Trump administration. If any such connection seems fanciful and tenuous here, at least films such as this remind us of the potential for catastrophic destruction when power falls into the hands of ruthless, narcissistic, men for whom “truth” is whatever they say it is, for now at least. This is a terrific film with a lot of humour to leaven the black hole at its core. Don’t let it escape you on the big screen, where the impact of the Moscow settings and the brilliant soundscape will be all the greater.