The Death of Stalin, Armando Iannucci, 2017
Is every unhappy government unhappy in its own way? There are three, at least, posited for comparison in The Death of Stalin: Stalin’s itself, and the two that in the wake of his death jostle for supremacy – the covertly brutal, overtly populist vision of state security administrator Lavrentiy Beria (a vicious, superbly assonant Simon Russell Beale), and the reformist agenda of the (relatively) liberal Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi).
This factional tête-à-tête, for the large part orchestrated beneath a veneer of comradeship, is the dramatic meat and potatoes of The Death of Stalin – spicing it, Hitchcock’s proverbial bomb under the table, the threat that failure surely means death: symbolic execution as a means of signaling the new regime.
Actually it’s a threat underlining every sentence uttered by Stalin’s central committee (Beale and Buscemi complemented by Michael Palin and Jeffrey Tambor, among others), reduced by the sheer Orwellian tyranny of it all to a cabal of perspiring sycophants – any verbal misstep reason enough for imprisonment, torture or execution.
Iannucci has long made hay of the mercurial nature of political conscience, malleable as it is to the ever shifting party line, and the tragicomic absurdity of desperate careerists just barely keeping pace. Though the stakes here are obviously higher, the initiated will see parallels aplenty with the neoliberal spin merchants so relentlessly skewered in Iannucci’s expanded, Bush-Blair era comic universe (The Thick of It [2005 – 2012], In the Loop , and Veep [began 2012, concluding next year] the relevant forebears).
Suffice to say this is familiar territory, and consequently The Death of Stalin is a film that displays both a consummate mastery of form and a weariness of comic devices already stretched thin over near thirty cumulative hours of employ. Granted, you could color it as virtue, this likeness across epochs, as insight – as Baudelaire put it, the artistic duty to “distil the eternal from the transitory” – and occasionally it is. But sometimes an old joke is just an old joke. Every unhappy government may be uniquely unhappy, but – so far for Iannucci – they seem to be similarly funny.
Note, that’s still to say they’re funny – if I haven’t made it clear enough yet, The Death of Stalin is a very funny film. To depict the ensuing coup d’état following Stalin’s death as an ensemble farce is in itself a fairly electric piece of comic engineering (credit is shared with Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s comic book of the same name) and on that front this is immaculate work. With Buscemi, Tambor and Palin playing fully to type, Paul Whitehouse laying it on full Fast Show cockney, and Jason Isaacs gabbing a salt-of-the-earth Yorkshire timbre (somewhere by way of Ralph Ineson’s Chris Finch), there’s a brilliantly preposterous mess of intonation and colloquy texturing a film where most are trying to catch their tongue.
Conceptually it’s in its slower moments, scenes that could almost be self-contained sketches, that The Death of Stalin is at its most effective. Its opening sequence – in which Stalin himself telephones Radio Moscow to request a recording of the concerto they just aired (which wasn’t recorded) – is an impeccably wrought piece of live-or-die screwball. The moving of Stalin’s body is proper, belly-laugh slapstick. And a long, sedentary committee meeting, the sort that would usually be struck through on the page for not being ‘dynamic’ enough, is possibly the film’s best scene – cresting in a brilliantly meandering, self-contradictory monologue of pseudo-logic from Palin’s Vyacheslav Molotov, that’s fitfully second-guessed by his colleagues in an absurd, hand-raising synchrony of assent.
Nevertheless, for all of this there’s still a coup to be had, and as such a sizable chunk of The Death of Stalin comprises the sort of corridor scurrying and back office machination that finds Iannucci defaulting, disappointingly, to type. It’s here, as I’ve said, that things get a little perceptibly comfort-zone – moments even where those signature lancet-sharp verbal digs (co-writer and ‘swearing consultant’ Ian Martin’s much lauded stamp on their collaborations) feel rather blunt (an oft repeated jab at Tambor’s Georgy Malenkov for a dye-job and side-part, post succession, never lands).
It’s also a film that struggles to find an identity as a piece of cinema, as surely as Iannucci’s previous, In the Loop, was unmistakable in its idiosyncrasy, extending The Thick of It’s bleak, fly-on-the-wall shaky cam to something leaner and quicker, a style that became the kernel of Veep. In The Death of Stalin, the vérité chamber room exchanges of these works go shoulder-to-shoulder with both the manifestly cinematic (the aforementioned opening at Radio Moscow a dead ringer for the sepia-toned, mid-century warmth of Hoyte van Hoytema’s excellent work on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and the blandly televisual: perfunctory renderings of apartment block raids and panic in the streets; rote establishing shots of soviet state architecture.
One of the elements that so energized the comedy of In the Loop was that it felt, thrillingly, like the most relevant, time-capsule-worthy document of contemporary political operations that you’d seen – a sense of satire being the perfect tool with which to investigate and illuminate reality. The Death of Stalin likewise attempts to position itself as credibly as possible within the reality it lampoons – it’s an impeccably researched film, and side-eyes none of the horrors – but leaves this largely as a back-and-forth (comedy / aside to tragedy / back to comedy), failing to resolve a cohesive tone.
There’s undoubted draw in seeing Iannucci train his instincts on a context both historically monumental and wholly displaced from his usual stomping ground of post-Iraq Anglo-American farragos. He is, after all, one of the most distinctive comedic voices of his time, and in The Death of Stalin succeeds time and again to find the humor among the horror. It’s simply that – for all his preoccupation with the currency of speech – this too often feels like something he’s said before.
Verdict: worth a look.