The Death of Stalin (15A)
This hilarious black comedy puts one in mind of the Irving Berlin apothegm, “The world would not be in such a snarl/Had Marx been born Groucho instead of Karl”. The cast become cartoon figures as the politburo is transformed into a comedy of (t)errors.
With the exception of Dr Strangelove, where Peter Bull was so good as a Brezhnev lookalike (who can ever forget the line, “You can’t fight in here – it’s the War Room”!) we’re more accustomed to satires of fascism being focussed on Germany. I’m thinking of films like Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Mel Brooks’ To Be or Not to Be.
Armando Iannucci’s film pushes different buttons. We’re not long into it before Stalin laughs himself to death as he reads a note from a concert pianist denouncing his terrorist regime. Adrian McLoughlin does the part. A Russian with a cockney accent is being played by a Paddy (Joe O’Stalin, anyone?)
His buffoonish cabinet members engage in an elaborate PR exercise to posthumously whitewash him. The internecine squabbles of these muppets begins with one of them saying over his body, “I need a vodka”.
So will Vladimir Putin if he ever sees this film. The only person missing is John Cleese. You can’t help seeing Basil Fawlty in every scene, foostering around the place saying things like, “Where’s Mrs Stalin going to sit at the funeral? Or has she popped her clogs already?” Oh well, at least we have Michael Palin.
There are also spot-on performances from Andrea Riseborough, Jason Isaacs and Richard Brake. And of course Steve Buscemi – though he’s miscast as Khruschev. Simon Russell Beale looks much more like him but for some reason he plays a character called Beria instead.
How can the casting director have made such a mistake? That’s not to say Buscemi doesn’t do everything that’s expected of him. But taking on the Beria role would have played better into his versatility.
This is a small caveat in a devilishly engrossing film. It’s got a razor sharp script from David Schneider and Ian Martin. They cut a swathe through every sacred cow imaginable. Be prepared for a lot of profanity. They use their pens like scalpels. There are repeated verbal slaughters of the era they so deliciously subvert.
The frivolous mood of the film echoes the recent Grand Budapest Hotel in its eccentricity – if not a Brecht farce. But it changes dramatically in the last ten minutes.
Beria is arraigned on a raft of crimes against the state and is frogmarched to his fate. Suddenly we’re not laughing anymore. It’s as if your parents have hauled you away from a children’s party just when you were beginning to enjoy yourself.
We realise, if we could ever have forgotten, that fascism isn’t very funny after all. People die. Actions have consequences. The poker face falls. Pagliacci takes his foot out of the bucket of paint.