If you were to go by the title alone, The Death of Stalin wouldn’t be the film you’d assume it was. But then in general, it’s probably much easier to say what it isn’t, rather than what it is. For instance, it isn’t a serious film about Russian history, but then nor is it a knock-about laugh riot. It isn’t your bog-standard British comedy film, not least because it’s technically an Anglo-French production. It isn’t a flat, un-cinematic feature-length TV piece. It isn’t a tidy, predictable narrative with a main character that you’ll root for. And it isn’t exactly what you’re expecting from the mind behind The Thick of It and Veep.
From the start, the viewer is plunged directly into the reign of paranoid terror of Stalin’s Russia in early March 1953. OK, so in terms of what happens next, there’s an almighty spoiler right there in the title (and, well, in the actual past). But the bulk of the film is about the period immediately after that dramatic event, with the assorted Central Committee members scheming and jostling for power around the Kremlin in the days leading up to the funeral.
What marks this out as a departure for Iannucci, is that it’s based on actual events (albeit inspired by a two-volume 2010/2 graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin). In that respect, it’s reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s celebrated quote ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant / Success in circuit lies’. It attempts to get to the absolute essence of the story by presenting it as a grotesque satirical comedy rather than a work of straight-faced painstaking realism. That’s not to say that it strays too far from the facts, though. It’s been very thoroughly researched, and it turns out that many of the most credulity-stretching events depicted here are actually completely true.
Really, the trick here is that film plays against audience expectations and humanises these dark, imposing events. As with The Thick of It and Veep, Iannucci tells us that it’s wrong to imagine that powerful leaders, especially historical Soviet ones, are lofty folk with reasoning beyond our ken. They’re just daft, greedy, hopeless, fallible people, trying to get by, much as we all do. In that respect, it’s tempting to draw parallels with the 2010 film Four Lions by Iannucci’s old mucker Chris Morris, but ultimately The Death of Stalin is a much more assured film and has a steelier, more substantial core.
It isn’t one single character’s story that’s being told, and the ensemble cast assembled here is supremely impressive. Arguably, the stand-out performance is by Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria, chief of the Soviet secret police force NKVD. Beria is portrayed by Russell Beale as a sharp, manipulative survivor, oddly magnetic and charming despite his utter loathsomeness. It’s an admirably varied cast, some of whom are best known for comedy – Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Paul Whitehouse – whereas others, like Russell Beale, are respected straight(er) thesps, including Steve Buscemi, Andrea Riseborough and Paddy Considine. To some degree, most of these are reduced to delivering a series of marvellous cameos. In particular, Jason Isaacs, as testosterone-soaked head of the Soviet army Georgy Zhukov, steals his scenes mercilessly, but by necessity some very fine performers – Whitehouse, Paul Chahidi, Dermot Crowley – don’t actually have a great deal to do.
There are certain points, then, when the narrative becomes a little too loose, crowded and uninvolving, but what the film does manage to pull off is a series of dazzling, handsome-looking set pieces, and an impressive balancing act between pure tragedy and comedy. Of course, Stalin was responsible for the brutal deaths of many thousands of people, and this doesn’t shy away from that fact. It’s not exactly a guffaw-fest throughout, but it does manage to find laughs in the telling. As the old saying goes, humour equals tragedy plus time.
Following a preview screening at HOME in Manchester, Iannucci appeared for a Q&A with the centre’s artistic director for film, Jason Wood. In conversation, Iannucci regaled the audience with tales of the film’s long gestation period, his particular approach to casting, rehearsals and improvisation, and even Jeffrey Tambor’s new-found love of McVitie’s biscuits. He also explained the decision not to go with faux-Russian accents – for which, apparently, Russian journalists have been swift to express their gratitude. After all, it’s a huge country taking in a whole range of regional accents and dialects, so allowing his cast members to sound just as they would in East End London, Brooklyn, Oxfordshire, and in Jason Isaacs’ case darkest Yorkshire, simply reflected that fact, while simultaneously helping to strip away that sense of this being a distant, unknowable setting. (There’s contemporary vernacular peppered through the script, too, as well as swearing and plenty of it.)
Perhaps Iannucci’s most illuminating comment is that, way back when he first signed up for the project, he was looking forward to getting away from the American political climate of Veep and concentrating instead on a project which explored the cult of personality and the nerve-shredding tyranny of a dictatorship. In the event, of course, world events have made it all too topical, and so it’s entirely possible that The Death of Stalin could have much to teach contemporary viewers as it entertains them. Lord knows, we could all do with a laugh. There it goes again, telling all the truth but telling it slant.
By Andy Murray, Film Editor