Tuesday, 27 March 2018

IN THEATRES: The Death of Stalin

In 1953 Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), Soviet strongman, dies. As the country mourns, his inner circle, particularly Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Beria (Simon Russell Beale), begin to fight amongst themselves  over who will take Stalin's place...

After a long wait, The Death of Stalin finally arrives on these shores just in time for me to get a bad case of writer's block.
You know when you see a great movie but you have nothing to say (or write) about it? That's me with The Death of Stalin.

I saw it over a week ago and I have been totally stumped. This movie hits all my sweet spots - history; black comedy and head shots. It works in every way that it wants to, and as a feat of tone it is amazing. It is perfect, which might be a problem - nothing about it leaps out to me in a particularly great (or bad) way, so this review is probably going to read like a series of empty platitudes.
 Let's see how this goes.

This movie felt like a combination of a couple of things. The first was Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall, for its claustrophobic focus on historical figures dealing with a major event. The other was Ernst Lubitsch's To Be Or Not To Be, for its near-miraculous juxtaposition of the comic and the horrifically real. Though it is funny, The Death of Stalin never shies away from the fear and paranoia of the time.

Iannucci's run-and-gun shooting style is perfect, catching these monsters at their most exposed and pathetic: Even Simon Russell Beale's Lavrentiy Beria, the most horrific and terrifying of Stalin's would-be successors, is not invincible. 

As with Iannucci's other projects, power and prestige do not translate to rational thought and moral integrity - heck, not even personal dignity escapes here. Violence and death come arbitrarily, and on the slimmest of pretexts. There is a humour to the bluntness of the brutality, but it is not there to soften the violence.

The movie's greatest strength is its ability to juggle these components. Iannucci's approach does not blunt or soften, it exposes - when Stalin dies, it is a long wide shot of an old man alone on the ground, soiling himself; when Beria is captured, he is chained to a toilet, screaming and dishevelled like a child. At a certain point, the deluge of ridiculous ego collisions and cold-blooded murder should become too much, but Iannucci and his cast strike the perfect tone: the key is that, fundamentally, they are taking this ridiculous, horrifying story absolutely dead seriously.

Like In The Loop, Iannucci's previous big screen effort, The Death of Stalin takes a major historical event and focuses on the series of human interactions and motivations that led to it. It is a view of history that film rarely attempts. Too often, we get the broad brush strokes, with characters who are just chess pieces (literally think of any historical drama or biopic from the history of cinema as we know it). In terms of recent movies, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is the closest analogue in that like The Death of Stalin, it focuses on a specific little piece of history so that the natural drama between the key figures has room to breathe.

The cast are, pound for pound, fantastic. Steve Buscemi may bear little resemblance to Khruschev but as the man who would be king, he is a wonderfully odious protagonist - simultaneously the most human and the most conniving.

Michael Palin brings a cheery mania to his role as Molotov, already nostalgic for the good old days before Stalin's body is cold. The now-disgraced Jeffrey Tambor is also terrific as Malenkov, a nuclear meltdown of a human being who has, by default, has become the most powerful man in the USSR. Sporting a gloriously brash Yorkshire accent, Jason Isaacs almost swaggers off with the movie as WW2 hero Zhukov, the man who helped Khruschev become the man who would be king

While everyone is great (even Olga Kurylenko is good) the movie is stolen by Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria. Mostly known for his theatre roles, Beale makes no attempt to soften Beria (a man who ran the NKVD during WW2, the Soviet nuclear programme and cinched his credentials as one of the worst people ever to walk the earth by also being a serial killer and rapist). Beale's Beria is a dead-eyed sadist with an almost blasé attitude to his day job, and who treats his colleagues with barely suppressed condescension. Beale is absolutely terrifying.

Huh, seems I had more to say about this movie than I thought. Anyway, check it out.

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