Sunday, 1 April 2018

The Death of Stalin

I’d been looking forward to watching The Death of Stalin for months now, after reading a short review in October that made it sound very much like my kind of film: great acting, great dialogue, subtle intelligent humour, brilliant political satire. I guess in my mind I was thinking of that greatest of dark comedy political satires, Dr. Strangelove (my seventh-favourite film of all time). So, given the addition of rave reviews by my favourite critics, I admit my expectations were way too high. But even if I had heard nothing about the film, I think I would have come away disappointed.

Not that watching The Death of Stalin was a waste of time, or that the review I mentioned was inaccurate. On the contrary, everything I remember about what it said was accurate. It’s just that I found the film far too dark (and violent) to work for me as a dark comedy without far more intentional and ‘funny’ (to me) comedy. What I’m saying is hard to convey, so let me try saying it in a different way: By definition, dark comedies are ‘dark’ and often quite violent. If the comedy is hilarious and ‘in-your-face’ (e.g. Dr. Strangelove), a fair amount of violence can be excused by me in a dark comedy. But if too many jokes fall flat or if the comedy or satire is too subtle or if the drama overwhelms the comedy or if the characters are treated with too much disdain, then violence can quickly make me feel uncomfortable, limiting my enjoyment of the film.

This is what happened in The Death of Stalin, which tells the story (based on true events) of the power struggles in Moscow following Stalin’s death. The film’s primary actors include Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev (Party Head), Simon Russell Beale as Beria (head of the KGB), Michael Palin as Molotov (Foreign Minister), Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov (Deputy General Secretary), Jason Isaacs as General Zhukov (head of the army), Olga Kurylenko as Maria (a pianist), Andrea Riseborough as Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, and Rupert Friend as Stalin’s son, Vasily. 

Beria and Khrushchev are the primary schemers after Stalin’s death, while Malenkov temporarily takes Stalin’s place. But Khrushchev soon sees Beria as a rival and begins to plot Beria’s elimination, a plot that will require the support of the other leaders. Mayhem ensues. While the opportunity for insightful political satire is there, director Armando Iannucci and his fellow writers don’t make the satire overt and powerful enough (in relation to contemporary events) to justify the darkness of the story or the so-so humour of its comedy (bottom line: I didn’t laugh anywhere near enough for this to work for me). When I discovered that Iannucci is the creator of Veep, I understood part of my problem with the film, because my appreciation of Veep is limited by similar issues (not violence but language). 

Nevertheless, as I have already indicated, there is much to praise in The Death of Stalin (I agree with everything in the first paragraph), I enjoyed many of the scenes and all of the performances, and I am still inclined to let it slide over the line to ***+. My mug is up, but for me this is not the classic I was hoping for (and that many critics saw).

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