Jenny finds it hard to enjoy The Death of Stalin
Is it a satire? Yes. Is it reasonably true to the real events? Apparently. Is it hilariously funny, like Iannucci’s previous offerings such as The Thick of It or Veep? Not really.
It’s 1953 and Stalin (Adrian McCloughlin) has had a stroke. He is alone. Although they hear him fall, his guards are too terrified to enter his room and when they do he is in a coma. His underlings are summoned and begin to manoeuvre, panic and bicker about who will succeed him. But meantime they have to haul him on to a bed, a task they find fussily distasteful since he is a heavy man, reeking of urine, and they are still uncertain whether he will live or die. They would send for medical help but unfortunately all the decent doctors have been killed or dispatched to the gulag, so a posse of trembling young and old fools is assembled in white coats only to pronounce that he cannot recover. And he cannot.
Simon Russell Beale is perfectly cast as the sinister Beria, head of the secret police; Steve Buscemi is the slyly scheming Kruschev and the wonderful Jeffrey Tambor plays Malenkov, Stalin’s fluttering deputy, with more than a touch of Maura, his transgender role in Transparent. The accents are an unapologetic jumble of New York, Californian, posh English, estuary English and Yorkshire. Thankfully, no one does fake Russian.
Iannucci is a specialist in puncturing the pretensions of petty men, fatuous tyrants who have squirmed, lied and terrorized their way into power. He skewers their frustrations as the world - objects, people and events - unaccountably fails to bend to their every whim despite their threats and their investment in spin and fake news. The comedy of his TV series, The Thick of It, arises from the surreal profanity of their language, their grandiosity, their outrageous bullying and the way the onscreen drama seems so often to predict real events. For instance, in the spin off film of the series, In The Loop, Tom Hollander plays a character who confesses to a liking for pornography. Shortly afterwards the real life British Home Secretary was discovered to have added the cost of a pornographic movie to her parliamentary expenses.
There are some good sight gags. Tambor plays Malenkov as preening and dim-witted. A string trails from the back of his ill- fitting but no doubt expensive jacket and this turns out to be attached to a corset. Jason Isaacs plays Zhukov, the swaggering head of the army, with an ostentatious facial scar and so many medals pinned to his already garish uniform that he clanks as he walks.
Unlike the japes imagined with such zest in Iannucci’s previous work, the action of this film is apparently closely based on history. All this chaos, paralysis and bizarre politicking actually happened in the wake of Stalin’s death. But Stalin’s regime was not funny. People really were murdered on a whim and in their millions. Political enemies really were disappeared. Beria really did rape and torture.
The excellent ensemble cast must have enjoyed making this film. Their exuberance shows. But truly it is more like tragedy masquerading as comedy. Its tone and purpose seem uncertain. We watch the contemptuous open air cremation of Beria’s body and Stalin’s autopsy is shown in gruesome detail. On the first day of the film’s release, almost every seat in the cinema was taken. It’s safe to assume that most of us thought we would see something laugh-out-loud funny. But I heard no yelps of laughter, just a few grunts from time to time. The film was mostly watched in silence. Perhaps the election of another vain and stupid man to the pinnacle of power in the US makes it harder to laugh at lunatic tyranny. Perhaps that’s why as the lights went up we filed out silently, with sober faces.