Acted with ruth­less force by an A-list cast, Ian­nucci’s bril­liant satire of Stalin’s death

Af­ter The Thick of It and Veep, the di­rec­tor has turned to chill­ing events in the Krem­lin with su­perb ef­fect, says Peter Brad­shaw at the Toronto film fes­ti­val

The Observer - - NEWS -

Fear rises like gas from a corpse in Ar­mando Ian­nucci’s bril­liant hor­ror satire The Death Of Stalin. It’s a sul­phurous black com­edy about the back­stairs Krem­lin in­trigue that fol­lowed the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, adapted by Ian­nucci, David Schnei­der and Ian Martin from the French graphic novel se­ries by Fa­bien Nury and Thierry Robin.

Faced with the un­think­able demise of Stalin, so long revered as noth­ing less than a god, Soviet dig­ni­taries panic, plot and go in and out of de­nial: it’s a bizarre, dys­func­tional hokey cokey of the mind. Ev­ery­one is of course ini­tially ter­ri­fied of say­ing out loud that he is dead – a kind of regi­ci­dal act, which could, in any case, turn out to be wrong and in­ter­preted as trai­tor­ous wish­ful think­ing. But dead he is, and Ian­nucci shows that it is like the cast­ing, or lift­ing, of some witch’s spell. All these age­ing courtiers and syco­phants have sud­denly been turned into a bunch of scared and ma­li­cious chil­dren.

The Death Of Stalin is su­perbly cast, and acted with icy and ruth­less force by an A-list lineup. There are no weak links. Each has a plum role; each squeezes ev­ery gor­geous hor­ri­ble drop.

Michael Palin is out­stand­ing as Molo­tov, the pa­thetic func­tionary with the kindly, un­happy face who has long since sac­ri­ficed his mar­riage and self-re­spect on the al­tar of Stal­in­ism; Steve Buscemi is a nervy Khrushchev, who morphs from un­easy court jester into a So­pra­nos- es­que player; An­drea Rise­bor­ough is com­pelling as Stalin’s wan daugh­ter Svet­lana, driven to a bor­der­line- Ophe­lia state ate of trauma and dread. Jef­frey ey Ta­main Tam­bor is hi­lar­i­ous as the vain and pre­pos­ter­ous Malenkov,, and so is Ru­pert Friend as Stalin’s talin’s dead­beat boozer son, Vasily. asily. Jason Isaacs gets sledge­ham­mer ham­lent laughs as the tru­cu­lent war hero Zhukov, to whom he gives a mus­cu­lar north­ernrn ac­cent: a down-to-earth h man of ac­tion.

And first among equals is Si­mon Rus­sell Beale as the toad­like se­cret po­lice chief, Be­ria, a fig­ure ooz­ing evil. For decades, I won­dered if this ex­tra­or­di­nary theatre ac­tor would ever get a screen role wor­thy of his stage ca­reer. Now at last he has. His Be­ria is the dark heart of the film: a man who disin­gen­u­ously sug­gests soft­en­ing or “paus­ing” the pro­gramme of beat­ings, im­pris­on­ing and tor­ture, so that re­formists can be re­viled for this ide­o­log­i­cal dis­loy­alty and weakness, and he can be cred­ited with restor­ing au­thor­ity. It is Be­ria’s cru­elty and in­hu­man­ity that put the war­head on the satire.

Beale’s great scene, maybe the best scene in the film, comes when he, Molo­tov and Khrushchev are hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion, and Be­ria grin­ningly in­sists on mak­ing Molo­tov repeat, sub­mis­sively and pi­ously that his wife de­served to be taken away and ex­e­cuted for trea­son. Be­ria has a sa­tanic sur­prise in stor store for Molo­tov: what Gra­ham Gre Greene might have called the worst ho hor­ror of all, al­though poor dopey Molo­tov doesn’t recog­nise og­nise it as such. If you re-read the fi­nal sce scenes be­tween Win­ston ston Smith a and Ju­lia in Ge­orge

Or­well’s N Nine­teen Eighty-Four and then watch this, you can have your own ver­sion of Karl Marx’s dic­tum about his­tory as tragedy, then farce.

Paddy Con­si­dine also has a small but tremen­dous role at the be­gin­ning as Andryev, the ra­dio pro­ducer who pre­sides over a live trans­mis­sion of a pi­ano con­certo, fea­tur­ing a soloist, Maria Yu­d­ina (Olga Kurylenko). To­wards the end of the broad­cast, Andryev is aghast to re­ceive a phone call from Stalin him­self, curtly ask­ing for a gramo­phone record­ing of the event. He then has no choice but to tell his ex­hausted mu­si­cians to repeat the per­for­mance, and to round up an­other con­duc­tor in cir­cum­stances rem­i­nis­cent of prepar­ing some­one to be sent to a labour camp. And his men­tion of their glo­ri­ous leader trig­gers an out­burst of neu­rotic clap­ping among those present, a droll al­lu­sion to the myth that of­fi­cial ap­plause could go on vir­tu­ally for ever in that era, when no one wanted to be the first to stop.

Stylishly plug­ging into the clas­sic Soviet-era mode of sub­ver­sive satire, and meld­ing it with his own, Ian­nucci has re­turned to his great the­matic troika of power, in­com­pe­tence and bad faith. Like the spin doc­tors and aides of his tele­vi­sion satires The Thick of It and Veep, these poi­sonous Soviet ri­vals are or­phaned by the times. The real power – prime min­is­ter, pres­i­dent, gen­eral sec­re­tary of the Soviet Union – to whom these peo­ple pay lip ser­vice but have for­got­ten why, is ab­sent, some­where beyond or above or be­low them.

They scurry around in an eter­nal head­less-chicken dance whose pur­pose is to make sure some­one else gets the blame. But in The Thick of It or Veep it was dif­fer­ent. Get some­thing wrong, and for the most part all you en­dured was me­dia em­bar­rass­ment. Here, you get a bul­let in the back of the head.

I won­der if any­one from Vladimir Putin’s cab­i­net will see The Death of Stalin. They might see some­thing aw­ful be­ing born.

All of these age­ing courtiers have sud­denly been turned into scared and ma­li­cious chil­dren

The Death of Stalin is show­ing at the Toronto film fes­ti­val and will be re­leased in UK cin­e­mas on 20 Oc­to­ber

Stalin’s in­ner cir­cle at his fu­neral: with the di­ca­tor dead his mourn­ers, in­clud­ing Paul White­house, Steve Buscemi as a nervy Khrushchev and Jef­frey Tam­bor, all strive to make sure some­one else gets the blame.

Ar­mando Ian­nucci adapted a French graphic novel se­ries.

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