It’s a struggle to work out what audience The Death of Stalin (2017) is intended to reach. Most over 55s would know Stalin and Khrushchev, a few less would know Molotov and Beria. Do their stories matter in a world consumed with instantaneous information? I doubt it.
However, in the hands of Armando Ianucci, creator of US TVs Veep; writer of UK TVs The Thick of It and screenplay writer of In The Loop (2009), it may be considered a vehicle to crack some witty jokes amid the political fallout from the death of a tyrant? Ianucci’s current day material is so cutting edge and accurately captures politics in all its foulness, perhaps he needed to back off his what appear to be absurd situations he creates and deliver these barbs through history?
All well and good, but I wonder what young audiences make of it? Do they know these people actually existed or are they merely happy to laugh at the gags and the calamitous situation facing the Central Committee after Josef Stalin died in 1953? Who knows?
Set against the horror of post-World War II Moscow where husband betrayed wife, son betrayed father, the movie takes a very black look at a tragic time and makes comic with it. Stalin is a bully even to his ministers. They all seem pretty happy when he has a stroke and eventually carks it. However, none will betray this truth just in case Joe can still reach out from the death bed – achieved in great part by his arch henchman Lavrenti Beria, head of the KGB precursor, NKVD.
Played with aplomb by Shakespearean actor, Simon Russell Beale, Beria orders killings at Stalin’s instruction and molests young girls for his own devious pleasure. He is as odious as he is successful and looks set to be the power behind the leadership of Georgi Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Stalin’s deputy and successor. Malenkov is pretty ditzy and other members of the committee angle to get their man leader or gain the controlling role.
Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) emerges as an unlikely successor. Like a critic once wrote of Woody Allen, I believe Steve Buscemi on a bad day is better than most of his peers on a Sunday. Best known as the lead actor in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, Buscemi’s face (“kinda funny lookin’” as a witness described him in 1996’s Fargo) is familiar to most movie fans.
The support cast comprises many actors I thought would be better known on closer investigation. However, fellow committee members are played by Paul Whitehouse, Dermot Crowley and Paul Chahadi, all jobbing British TV actors.
Tambor has never before been in anything ‘great’ but worked steadily in Hollywood for 40 years and Russell Beale’s familiarity provided a pleasant surprise.
It’s a long time back now but he played the odious Kenneth Widmerpool in A Dance to the Music of Time (1997), the TV creation of Anthony Powell’s 12-volume set, embracing upper class English life – and its declining power – from 1920 to the 1970s.
Andrea Riseborough, who plays Svetlana Stalin, was in Birdman (2014) and Jason Isaacs, who plays Field Marshal Zhukov, was the villainous Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films.
At least younger audiences will know them.