The Death of Stalin ★★★ review

by Nadia Bee

The Death of Stalin opens with an apocryphal story about the legendary pianist Maria Yudina, an artist of such talent, and force of character, that Stalin was said to have tolerated her despite her openly articulated dissidence.

Based on the French graphic novel of the same name by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, the film compresses cleverly, into just a few days, the three months of uncertainty which followed Stalin’s stroke in February 1953.  The film departs from the graphic novel in some important ways, stylistically and tonally. These differences have an impact on how the film works, and on the way in which it aims to be funny.

The Death of Stalin; dir: Armando Iannucci; France/UK 2017, 108 mins. Our Rating: ★★★/5

The Death of Stalin has the look and feel of a classic British period film, relatively brightly lit and revelling in a somewhat middle of the road set and costume design – similar to a slew of recent television series. That’s in contrast to the graphic novel, where the visual style is of imperious starkness, with deep shadows, and where the characters are drawn expressively, the story of their lives etched into their features.

Tonally, the film somersaults from farce to occasional darkness – most scenes are slapstick and wordy; the mood only changes during later scenes with Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), and during later scenes with Beria. The moments featuring Riseborough inject a certain realism and gravity, sometimes poignancy. This gives occasional depth to the story – and could have made for powerful satire. The transitions are however uneven, with farce rather than satire the dominant element.

Liberties are taken with time and characters; the Yudina episode which opens the film, if it took place at all, would have done so ten years earlier. It is a missed opportunity not to have imbued Yudina’s character with the gravitas and age of her real-life counterpart – from that, biting satire could have sprung. Beria, Khrushchev and Molotov were in different roles at the time of Stalin’s death; Zhukov was far away in the provinces and not in charge of the Red Army.

Some of these liberties are more significant than others; they matter less if the film is simply a throwaway comedy; they matter more if the film purports to be political satire. This distinction, between comedy and satire, is important, and it may explain the film’s polarised reception from audiences and critics; it has been welcomed as either hilariously, riotously funny – or not funny at all. The purpose of political satire is to shine a light on something unpalatable; it can also be a form of exorcism. It is about meaning. Comedy does not carry that luggage. It can be meaningless and mindless.

These characters form a wonderful cast – remarkable actors, and in the main, superb ensemble players. Simon Russell Beale and Jason Isaacs, in particular, shine.  The use of regional accents is inspired; Isaacs’s Yorkshire accent is to die for, accentuating his character’s distance from the other players, all involved in a risky power grab. He has some great lines too. The script is replete with great lines – but given the context, their resonance is diminished.

If one is to make a darkly funny film about such a person and such events, then there must be sufficient skill deployed to do so. Incisive black humour does not entail lightening up the character of the perpetrator of an injustice, and diminishing the suffering of the victim.

Other filmmakers, such as Aleksei German, or Tenghiz Abduladze, have deployed deeply bleak humour in their films – and have shone a light on something which is washed out in The Death of Stalin.

In part, this is due to the style adopted by Iannucci and his fellow writers.  But, perhaps, too, they are more interested in recounting the indignities of office politics, than being genuine, fearless political satirists. Earnestness does not seem to be their thing, but without earnestness, there cannot be savagely funny satire.

In The Death of Stalin, victims appear subdued but there is no genuine emotion attached to their situation.  The film moves on swiftly; there is a gloss on everything that is unpalatable.  The reference to the Doctors’ Plot, for example, is disconcerting.  In the Telegraph, one reviewer came up with a rather ironic line to explain the missing doctors: “All the good doctors are out of town”.  The film manages to create a mildly comic moment, around the scenes involving Stalin’s hastily assembled doctors, only because it omits one very important aspect: that Jewish doctors, in large numbers, had been mercilessly targeted in recent purges. This particular (and central) aspect, anti-Semitism, is not addressed. Life imitates art then, airbrushing something because it does not fit.

Such elisions explain how the writers have managed to create a comedy out of terrible events, and why the film has been thought rather funny, by many. In this, as a comedy, it might be deemed a success. For the same reason, it fails as political satire.

The aim of satire is to shine a light on something unacceptable; it doesn’t flinch away or sugar-coat the unacceptable – instead it makes it its target. The target of The Death of Stalin is not the cruelty of man, but his squabbles for succession. Is the period following Stalin’s demise then really the adequate backdrop for such observations? Perhaps this is ignoring the elephant in the room, and instead admiring the paintwork.

Satire has engaged the minds of fascinating writers: Jonathan Swift, George Orwell, and more; it rarely changes the world. It can reduce the sense of unwilling complicity, borne out of silence; it can offer some solidarity, moral support to the oppressed; it might briefly make the unbearable just a bit more bearable.

The Death of Stalin does not do that; nor does it provide any meaningful insight into totalitarianism, or cruelty. It merely provides amusement to outsiders, who look in from a great distance, and laugh at both oppressor and oppressed. The laughter relies on some kind of insularity, a capacity for solipsism, and a dash of self-satisfaction.

Nadia Bee is a writer and filmmaker. She tweets@NadjaBee.

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