Saturday Features

As he lay dying

  • Smart, funny and an exceedingly well-acted portrait of the petty self-interest and unmitigated idiocy that often govern the people who govern, Armando Iannucci’s new The Death of Stalin does not disappoint

Apr 28, 2018-

It’s March 1953, and Radio Moscow is in the process of airing a live Mozart recital by pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) and an accompanying orchestra. Towards the end of the concert, however, the station in-charge (Paddy Considine) gets a phone call: It’s from the one and only Joseph Stalin and he wants a recording of the performance sent to him, pronto, with a dreaded “or else” implicit in the request.

Only thing is, the station was not taping the recital. In the midst of the ensuing panic, the in-charge decides the only thing to be done is to recreate the entire programme and have it recorded. But much of the audience has left, the conductor is suddenly indisposed thanks to an unfortunate mishap with a fire bucket, and Maria Yudina—whose father and brother were killed by Stalin—is refusing to perform again. And so, it is following great exertions on the part of the Radio Moscow employees—including pulling random people off the street to fill the hall, locating a replacement conductor and hauling him out of his home at night in his pajamas, and offering Yudina a substantial bribe in exchange for playing—that the deed is done; a recording is prepared and sent to the General Secretary.

But it’s precisely while listening to this in the comfort of his office—after a long evening of shooting the breeze, drinking and watching John Wayne films with his ‘posse’, ie the members of the Soviet Central Committee—that our mustachioed monster-in-chief (played by Adrian McLoughlin) suddenly keels over with a cerebral hemorrhage.When they find their dear leader sprawled thus on the carpet the next morning, even before he has been declared officially dead (in which there’s a considerable delay owing to the fact that, as part of Stalin’s campaign to purge the city of supposedly untrustworthy Jewish doctors, there is no professional at hand to properly examine him), Committee members instantly begin scrambling for power. There’s the Party’s First Secretary Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi); Stalin’s clueless deputy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor); the elderly Minister Molotov (Michael Palin); and the sly, ruthless head of the secret police, Beria (Simon Russell Beale), all of whom struggle to maintain a facade of loyalty to the General Secretary—and to each other—even as they plot and scheme relentlessly to take his place.

That’s the overall premise of the new The Death of Stalin, but these broad strokes alone do little justice to the brilliance of this sharp little comedy—the magic is entirely in the finely-crafted, often blink-and-you-miss-it details. Adapted from a 2010 French graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, the film is directed by Armondo Iannucci, of TV series Veep and The Thick of It fame, as well as the latter’s film spin-off In the Loop. Given that resume, one is bound to expect political skewering of a certain standard, and suffice it to say Iannucci does not disappoint. Smart, funny and an exceedingly well-acted portrait of the petty self-interest and unmitigated idiocy that govern the people who govern—The Death of Stalin ultimately transcends the period and place in which the film is set, as well as its farcical structure, to resonate all too well, unfortunately, in a number of contemporary political contexts.

It was most likely in an effort to underscore exactly that pervasiveness of corruption and conceit that Iannucci made the rather strange, and risky, decision of having his actors retain their original accents—no laboured Russian enunciation here, which, after Red Sparrow, I am eternally grateful for. Of course, all the different accents in one place—including McLoughlin’s distinctive Cockney—feels a bit jarring at first, but you eventually settle into it, thanks mainly to a top-rate cast who offer each of their characters a keen believability, despite the outsize, almost carnivalesque settings. Buscemi, for instance, makes the most of his capacity for verbal rapid fire; while Tambor is hilarious in the shiny shoes of the cowardly, uncertain heir apparent, as is Palin as the loyal-to-the-point-of-absurdity statesman. Other actors shine in smaller parts—Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend are terrific in the role of Stalin’s bereaved, and very entitled, children, and Jason Isaacs makes quite an impression as the ridiculously irreverent Army Chief Zukhov.

But it’s Beale, rightly given a large chunk of screen time, who shines the most, and whose character best embodies the dangerous artifice and cruelty of the bullies who run the show. Whether it’s the rushed way in which he skims the daily lists of persons to be executed and issues such offhand instructions to his deputy as “kill her first, but make sure he sees it”, or his crafty maneuvering of political opponents, exploiting their respective weaknesses and playing them against one another—there’s little doubt that Beria is the dark beating heart of the film.

Although the jostling and jockeying between the Committee members makes for an amusing time overall, Iannucci never lets us forget the grim realities of the world they inhabit. For instance, while most of The Death of Stalin takes place indoors, any time it ventures outside to the streets, or people’s homes, or anywhere else really, it makes palpable the atmosphere of deep paranoia that existed under Stalin’s rule, the possibility of losing everything with just one misstep, the sheer, groaning weight of people’s fear. Even scarier than that, I’d say, is how the film depicts their internalisation of that subordination, how, for instance, they show up in droves, risking death, to mourn a man so unutterably evil.

And therein lies Iannucci’s biggest victory, in effectively communicating the very grave, very real—a little digging will tell you a lot of situations presented in the film actually did happen—terror of those times through the medium of comedy, without poking fun at the victims or trivialising their suffering. Another of the film’s triumphs is in the subtle threads it manages to pull to present-day politics; although it focuses on long-ago, seemingly distant events, one can’t escape the uneasy parallels it draws to more proximal power-hungry, reality-eschewing mad men in big chairs who have cultivated a cult of personality around themselves. However, even without those parallels, The Death of Stalin would still be plenty worth its while.

Reel run


The Death of Stalin

Director: Armando Iannucci

Actors: Simon Russell Beale, Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin

Genre: Comedy

Published: 28-04-2018 09:06

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