British artists, writers and satirists have long been fascinated by Russian culture. Chekhov plays are continually staged in British theatres and Tolstoy novels are adapted for screen and TV at regular intervals.
In recent years, Peter Greenaway has made a biopic about Soviet-era filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein while Julian Barnes has written a novel (The Noise Of Time) about composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s terror of being arrested after Stalin denounced his “fidgety, neurotic” opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk.
Martin Amis has also written fiction and non-fiction dealing with Stalin’s terror. Armando Iannucci’s new feature The Death Of Stalin thus follows in a very long tradition of interpreting Russian history through British eyes.
The film is funny and shocking by turns but this is still an outsider’s vision. Iannucci portrays the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1953 much as if it is a slightly more violent version of a leftist militant British city council in the 1980s.
Josef Stalin (engagingly played by Adrian Mcloughlin) is a very cunning and down-to-earth tyrant. There have been so many purges and executions under his rule that even his closest followers can’t quite remember “who’s alive and who’s dead”.
They all know that they might be promoted one day and then denounced the next, arrested and either shot or hauled off to the gulags. Life, they accept, is very cheap.
Iannucci begins the film with a wonderfully comic, surrealistic and chilling set piece. Radio Moscow is staging a performance of a Mozart piano concerto in front of a live audience. The producer Comrade Andreyev (Paddy Considine) receives a call from Stalin himself.
The great dictator has enjoyed the performance so much that he would like a recording to be sent to him forthwith. His request induces panic and terror. The station hasn’t recorded the concert and so Andreyev forces the orchestra to play it all over again, even if that means locking in the audience, bribing the pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), a haughty and beautiful figure who detests Stalin, and finding a new conductor, who oversees the second performance in his dressing gown.
The filmmakers capture the comedy as well as the paranoia that comes with everyday life under the dictator. There is real grotesquerie too in the early scene of Stalin and his closest comrades, eating, drinking and chest-bumping together, behaving like the senior pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
Iannucci goes out of his way to reveal the banality of Stalin’s existence. The dictator may have been responsible for the death of millions but his own demise is very undignified indeed. He is eventually discovered in his own piss (“lying in a puddle of indignity” as it is put.)
No doctor can be found because most of the competent ones have been purged. Even before his death has been established, the jockeying to succeed him begins in earnest. The only ones who seem to care for him are his daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), and his hot-tempered son, Vasily (Rupert Friend).
The filmmakers have assembled a formidable cast. The actors speak in a range of vernacular accents. Steve Buscemi plays the reforming Nikita Khrushchev in a way that can’t help but rekindle memories of his prohibition era gangster/politician “Nucky” Thompson in Boardwalk Empire.
He’s a decent man, disgusted by Stalin’s excesses, but capable of extreme ruthlessness. Other characters include Michael Palin, in antic, Pythonesque form as Molotov, a party loyalist who’ll denounce anyone, even his own beloved wife, and Jeffrey Tambor, who bears a resemblance to Boris Karloff as the ineffectual and increasingly forlorn Malenkov, seemingly destined to take over from Stalin.
Late on, we get a very rum cameo from Jason Isaacs, who plays military hero Marshal Zhukov as if he is a bluntly spoken Yorkshireman in the Brian Close or Geoffrey Boycott mould and who tells all and sundry to “fook” off.
One of the delights of the film is Simon Russell Beale’s creepy but comic turn as Beria, head of the NKVD, the secret police, and by a distance, the most lethal member of Stalin’s entourage. Russell Beale plays Beria in a weasel-like, calculating and passive-aggressive fashion that echoes his performance as the similarly unctuous Widmerpool in the TV version of Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time. He is like a senior British civil servant. The difference, of course, is that most British civil servants don’t torture people or make them disappear.
The accents and tweed jackets accentuate the feeling that we’re in Britain, not Soviet-era Russia. The dialogue is very ripe and full of colourful expletives. “Did Coco Chanel take a shit in your head?” one character goads another about his aftershave.
Why in the name of “God’s arse” did he invite the bishops, another character asks when representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church turn up at Stalin’s funeral.
Parts of The Death Of Stalin have the same barbed, outspoken humour found in Iannucci’s politically-themed TV satires like The Thick Of It and Veep. The jokes, though, begin to seem increasingly incongruous as we realise how many people have actually died and are continuing to die.
The members of the Central Committee are all completely aware that if any of them makes a false step, the results will be lethal. When they do finally turn on one of their own, Iannucci films the scene in a way that evokes memories of the makeshift trial and execution of Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu.
We see a character who seems to have been in charge a few moments before being arrested, humiliated and killed. Given his misdeeds, this character may not deserve much sympathy but the manner of his death is still shocking.
It makes us think that maybe the Stalin terror and its aftermath isn’t such a good subject for comedy after all. Iannucci’s version of events may be well researched but it still gives us a very British, very witty but facetious version of a dark story which might have been better told by an insider.
The Death of Stalin hits UK cinemas 20 October
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