Tuesday, 7 November 2017

The Death Of Stalin

Every now and then you come across a film that defies description and expectation and leaves you sitting in the dark when it's over wondering if you liked it or not.

The Death Of Stalin is one such film.

I did like it by the way.

Set in 1953 during the last days of Joseph Stalin's reign as the leader of Russia. Stalin is a horrific bastard and that's putting it mildly. He routinely has his enemies banished to gulags or tortured and killed. The entire country lives under a cloud of fear. And that fear extends to the men who work with Stalin too. Everyone is paranoid. Everyone is terrified of stepping out of line or speaking out of place. Friends inform on friends and family on family. Stalin is bad but Lavrentiy Beria, his chief of security is just as bad as him. Worse, a man who takes pleasure in rape and death. His other underlings are Nikita Khrushchev, an ambitious snake and Georgy Malenkov, a dangerous image obsessed fool. All operate in a bubble uncaring of the suffering around them. When Stalin becomes deathly ill they scramble and panic as each one wants to be the man to fill his boots.

This is a comedy by the way. Yeah.

Directed by Armando Iannucci, the man behind The Thick Of It and Veep this is political comedy as black as tar. A lot of what you'll find funny about it depends on your ability to suppress shock and shudders. This is dark stuff. Verbally more than visually though. The atrocity and mass murder is shown at the edge of the frame or heard more than seen. Thankfully. We aren't being asked to laugh at horrors though, we laugh at the absurdity of it all. The reactions of powerful men to atrocity and suffering and just how far removed they are from real life. Some of the quieter scenes veer close to almost slapstick though and when placed against a backdrop of suffering too immense to fully comprehend it feels odd to say the least. 

That's Iannucci comedy in a nutshell though, you find something funny and them you feel pretty bad about it after. One minute you're laughing at a man trying to be subtle during a funeral and the next you're laughing at him complaining about the hassle of 1500 people who were just shot and killed. The craziness of the film is amplified too by the fact that it was all real. Some of it of course is slightly condensed to make it fit the film but everything we see on screen really happened. Fact is always stranger than fiction. The whole film seems to be in a heightened state of panic too. One scene of consternation at a music hall is a microcosm of both the film itself and Russian society under Stalin. You can never relax. It's not for people who want a nice easy going time at the cinema. 

The cast is pretty amazing. The standouts are Steve Buscemi in ratty little bastard mode as Khrushchev. Jason Isaacs as Russian war hero Georgy Zhukov, who doesn't turn up until half way through the film but then owns it as a bully boy with a full on Emmerdale farm accent. Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov and Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov bring the comedy to the fore too. Tambor's fussing over the perfect child to be photographed with to show his humanity and a speech given by Palin are two scenes that will make you laugh. By the way, don't be expecting any bad Russian accents. No one even bothers. It's jarring at first but a nice source of humour as the film goes on.

Don't go to this expecting the full on comedy shown in the trailers. You won't get it. You will get a frightening, black funny history lesson though about an era that should not be forgotten, especially the way modern society is heading at the moment.

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