Wednesday 1 November 2017

Deep red: "The Death of Stalin"

It is, we gather, very much business as usual in the Soviet Union we join at the beginning of Armando Iannucci's new comedy The Death of Stalin. Amid great fuss and panic, the players and audience at a concert that has just been broadcast live on state radio have to be recalled in order to make a recording that will appease the Supreme Leader; back at the Kremlin, meanwhile, the murderous Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) breaks away from a jolly lads' night with fellow members of Stalin's inner circle to issue coldly precise orders vis-à-vis those deemed enemies of the state ("Shoot them both, but shoot her before him so he has to watch"). The year is 1953, and as you might already have sensed, these are strange and strained conditions for comedy to flourish in: if the people on screen are seen to laugh, it's because they feel they have no other choice than to laugh, or to applaud as the concert audience feel they have to applaud, or call the Secretariat back at 10.27pm precisely, as station manager Andryev (Paddy Considine) must - because his job and possibly even his life are felt to depend upon it. Very quickly, Iannucci and his expert writing staff - David Schneider and Ian Martin, adapting a French comic book of the same name - establish a world where a joke, "unauthorised narcissism" or any other deviation from or slackening of that week's Party line will likely be the individual in question's final act.

This milieu makes The Death of Stalin a very different political satire from a gloves-off, anything-goes free-for-all like Duck Soup, and even, really, from the omnishambolic yet essentially benign Whitehall and Washington of Iannucci's small-screen triumphs The Thick of It and Veep. It's some sign of the dark terrain we're passing through that the film earns its first unfettered laugh from the sight of its Uncle Joe - played by TV veteran Adrian McLoughlin as a shady costermonger right out of a Guy Ritchie movie - evacuating his bladder in the wake of what eventually proves a fatal brain haemorrhage; the several minutes of corpse manoeuvring that follow are vaguely reassuring for coming straight out of the Weekend at Bernie's playbook. Yet beyond this point, anybody expecting to see history replayed as straightahead farce will be quieted by Iannucci's reluctance to carry us too far from the cutthroat facts of the Soviet tragedy. The film's laughs tend to cool on the lips; they're engineered to chafe, rather than comfort. Additional consternation is created after it becomes clear the country's best medical minds have been carried off on charges of treason; those the Central Committee do send for suspect they're being rounded up themselves. Beria breaks off from his plotting to see to (read: rape) the wives and daughters of accused men, and the factionalism that breaks out after Stalin's demise means the threat levels only increase. The film opens on one death, and opens onto the prospect of many more - the tension within the comedy is sustained rather than released, in such a way you can imagine Iannucci's uncompromising protégé Chris Morris savouring.

For Iannucci's part, this is his second film after 2009's In the Loop, a stop-off between Thick and Veep that in retrospect really does seem like a feature-length TV special. The new movie clearly benefits from years of tightly honed comedy writing - taking a situation loaded with the potential for absurdity, then expanding upon it - but also reflects its maker's historical scholarship, expanding at an unstoppable rate of knots into a properly big picture, with a cast of hundreds waiting in the wings to take to the streets. Iannucci starts with that inner circle - a doomy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Beale's malicious Beria, a perpetually sour and put-upon Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and the cautious Molotov (Michael Palin) - before everybody starts piling into shot: first Stalin's unstable son Vasily (Rupert Friend), who may or may not have done for an entire ice-hockey team, and pallid daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), eventually even Field Marshal Zhukov, played by Jason Isaacs with a broad Yorkshire accent and gruff demeanour that suggests he has no time whatsoever for Kremlin namby-pamby. The gag of having the actors play with something close to their own regional accents is, it turns out, an inspired one, only heightening the cacophony of disparate interests the film dramatises, yet the script wryly notes how, in one sense, these Soviets were truly united: everyone who charges into the frame does so looking to turn this power vacuum to their own ends without separating themselves from the herd. As hands are raised nervily, one by one, towards yet another unanimous decision by the Central Committee, an alternative title presents itself: House of Cards.

Scene after scene presents copious evidence that Iannucci may be the foremost comedy tactician of our age - if you hadn't already been persuaded of this by his list of production credits. It's not just that he thought to recruit this ensemble, and to cast and rehearse them this well (in all seriousness, these guys make John Morton's well-drilled W1A troupe seem like amateurs); he keeps finding new combinations of actors that give the film new energies as new alliances are formed. If ever you doubted Iannucci's capabilities as a big-screen director, look at the brilliantly wrangled scene - cut from camera angles only someone who's spent a lot of time on the studio floor would know to use, but also shaped towards something more expressive than mere technique - in which Beria, Khrushchev and Molotov take turns denouncing the latter's wife as a traitor and anathema to the Stalin project before the woman herself, who's been within earshot throughout, is ushered back into the room like an unfavoured Juke Box Jury act, to horribly forced smiles and hugs. The revelation she was there all along fosters laughs from the performers' flexibility, but also an understanding of the whiplash moral and ethical contortions the era demanded - you're impressed both by what the scene does, and what it tells you. 

Such sharp writing and close direction ensures The Death of Stalin generates half a dozen or more of the best performances you'll see this year, and routines that somehow retain their own idiosyncrasies and filigrees while appearing to tap into wider comedy traditions. Buscemi's aggrieved insistence that "I'm the reformer!" goes back to Abbott and Costello, if not music hall; Tambor's dolorous Malenkov skilfully retrofits the actor's Hank Kingsley, another individual with an inflated sense of his own power (and security); lest matters get too subtle, Iannucci can always send Isaacs on to wallop someone. What may be more crucial to the film's very particular grip is that so many of these performers - Beale, Buscemi, Friend, Riseborough - aren't operating so far from their usual dramatic modes: even the film's pathetic, shuffling Molotov doesn't call for the Palin of Python, but the Palin of Alan Bleasdale and Brazil. You'll likely emerge from Iannucci's film at least as chilled as you are tickled, and - hey, Peter Hitchens - that's exactly as it should be. Timely though it is that it should be released into the end-of-year awards corridor, it seems even timelier that it should be around to haunt cinemas in the week of Halloween. What we're watching here isn't a straightforward multiplex thigh-slapper so much as a period horror film with a few more laughs than usual, and one that emerges into a world heading once again towards extremes, and ever deeper into dogma. Among The Death of Stalin's many, considerable achievements: it is, in more ways than one, a masterclass in timing.

The Death of Stalin is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

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