Over the last couple of years it seems TV and cinema has once again decided to re-explore and reassess some of the pivotal moments of mid-20th century history. From The Crown to Dunkirk to Darkest Hour (all of which have gone with the more dignified standard ‘drama’ route) to Armando Iannucci’s latest, The Death of Stalin, which, as one might expect, takes a rather different approach.
Focussing on the period from the day before Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) supposedly suffered a cerebral haemorrhage to a few days after his funeral and the rise to power of Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), and based on a graphic novel of the same name, Iannucci takes elements of his past work from TV shows like I’m Alan Partridge and The Thick Of It to more cinematic offerings like In The a Loop to create a kind of dark satirical farce.
While it obviously plays fast and loose with total fact, what Iannucci presents has a strong ring of truth to it as it captures the chaos which was caused by Stalin’s death with our key characters, Khrushchev, Molotov (Michael Palin at his best since Python), Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and in a slightly different way Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) plotting, bickering and back stabbing their way through increasingly hysterical but violent proceedings.
The performances are all very strong, as one might expect from this cast, and the semi-improvised nature, along with the decision to use the actors natural accents, really keeps the whole thing feeling fast and lively.
It is Iannucci’s total disregard for stylistic tradition though that makes it so engaging.
Staid and stately camerawork is replaced with hand-held and fast-moving shots giving us glimpses of things in the background, suggestions of a wider world, without being too expositional, while the arrival of Jason Isaacs’ Zhukov, complete with broad Yorkshire accent, is a true cinematic moment of recent times (and once he does arrive he does somewhat steal every scene he’s in, but that seems right for the character).
In making this a comedy, that at points is very broad, Iannucci highlights the inherent ridiculousness of these kind of situations, which it’s hard to ignore could be seen as a reflection of the current White House administration or the ongoing kerfuffle in the British government around Brexit (though the film was devised and written before both really hit their current level), while also making strong points about both state control of information and ‘personality cult’ politics.
But that’s not to say it ignores the obvious dark side of things and the comedy is used expertly, much as it was (in a slightly different context) in I’m Alan Partridge, to highlight this.
So we go from a scene of these powerful men trying to move the near lifeless Stalin between rooms to a discussion of the purges of doctors.
At another point we see one of these purges taking place while a radio station director (Paddy Considine) desperately tries to re-record a live concert performance for Stalin apparently at pain of death.
What this juxtaposition does expertly is make the horrific violence and state control evident and impactful without resorting to obvious excess and gratuitousness in a truly expert fashion.
All of this and much more, including brilliant performances from Andrea Riseborough, Paul Whitehouse, Olga Kurylenko and others, make The Death of Stalin, along with recent watches Dunkirk and The Shape Of Water, a truly great piece of recent cinema that should stand the test of time and combines entertainment with message in a way inherent to its being rather than by labouring a tacked on point.