Friday, 27 October 2017

It's absurd but are we meant to laugh?

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.

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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.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Don't miss this party

Jenny gives Sally Potter’s political farce 5 stars

The Party is a terrifically enjoyable film. It’s a chamber piece made in pin-sharp black and white, only 71 minutes long and is very very funny.

It opens with a close-up of a brass lion’s head door knocker. Behind it is Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) eyes wild with emotion, brandishing a gun. It’s a flash forward; everything else in the film happens in real time.

Cut to Janet in her elegant kitchen in one of those tall thin North London houses with a cramped, sunless garden. Janet is a senior politician. The event is to celebrate the news that she is to become the Shadow Minister of Health for her Party and all her close friends are invited. She is giggling exuberantly, nursing her phone in her chin as she prepares the vol-au-vents. Immediately we are into surprises because Janet is obviously talking to a secret lover. Janet is also maybe channelling Margaret Thatcher and showing off a little with her pinny and housewifey insistence on doing the catering herself. Personally I thought vol-au-vents a little too obviously retro for a smart party involving the post Referendum London middle class in 2017, but that’s just a quibble. 

Meanwhile in the heavily book-lined sitting room her husband, Bill, (a gaunt Timothy Spall) a man who sacrificed his career for hers, sits motionless in what looks like a catatonic state. What’s happening to him? ‘I’m Bill’ he says lugubriously, ‘Or I think I used to be’.

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The guests arrive. They include April (Patricia Clarkson) and her boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz). Bruno is not reprising his brilliant role as Hitler in Downfall as here Gottfried is some kind of life coach with a new agey cliché for every situation, though maybe there is a sly joke within a joke here when April says, ‘Tickle an aromatherapist and you find a fascist’. April has a smart put down for everyone, but it’s a put down of the stiletto type which you don’t feel until it has slid in because it starts as a compliment, such as her comment to Janet, ‘I’m so pleased about your success – but you really must do something about your hair…’ Then there is the bickering lesbian couple (Emily Mortimer and Helen Cherry) whose shock is that IVF has been successful and that they are expecting triplets. Not just triplets but, oh dear, boys.

Everyone has secrets, including Tom (Cillian Murphy), a banker, who arrives distraught, sweaty, in need of another line or two of cocaine – and with that gun. Everyone also has life-changing announcements. Infidelity, illness, pregnancy, the compromising of publically held political principles, the post-Brexit confusion, betrayal: it’s all here.

I loved this film not least for its homage to so many predecessors. It could be a one-act early Simon Gray or Tom Stoppard play. It could be Mike Leigh when he still had a sense of humour: there is more than a nod to Abigail’s Party with its absent but critical character, in this case Marianne, Tom’s wife. There is also superb use of a MacGuffin, the term popularised by Alfred Hitchcock to describe an object or an idea with which the characters become obsessed but whose only real point is to drive the plot forward.

The stellar cast must have had enormous fun making this movie. They are all wonderful but if I had to choose I would say that Patrician Clarkson - haughty blonde mane, dramatic lipstick, exquisite timing - wins it for me.

This film is satire, written as well as directed by Sally Potter, and it is sophisticated farce. I watched it in the BFI’s excellent pop up cinema on the Victoria Embankment during the London Film Festival. There is a final twist where the huge audience erupted with laughter and applause. We absolutely could not have guessed the ending. 

I have lived in one of those tall thin North London houses where the kitchen can never be on the right floor and where catering for a party was always a nightmare. I’m not surprised that the vol-au-vents got burnt and had to be thrown out. Really, darling, another time just get Deliveroo or UberEats, even if it’s not politically correct. No one will ever know.

Joe's footnote

Kristin Scott Thomas's performance as ex-convict Juliette Philippe in Claudel’s 2008 film I’ve Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t’aime) is superb. But she’s great whatever she’s in. I know some people consider Four Weddings and a Funeral to be the great onscreen love story of the 90s, but I could never believe that Charles, however shallow, would fall for the inadequately scripted Carrie, while KST's sharp-tongued, sardonic Fiona was pining for him.