A Murmuration of Stalins

The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci, 2017)

I’ve been watching Armando Iannucci’s comedy for decades now. He was there behind On the Hour and The Friday Night Armistice, not to mention The Thick of It and In the Loop. Much of his work this century has been exploring the back stabbing shenanigans at the heart of politics, even as reality outstripped him.

Now he has turned to a historical event — the death of Joseph Stalin — to fashion a satire of the darkest hue.

This is comedy with a body count.

Of course, this is hardly new. Two of my favourite British comedies, both from Ealing, are The Lady Killers and Kind Hearts and Coronets, which together have a death toll of at least a dozen people. Comeuppance is meted out to some of the characters, but their endings are far from morally unambiguous. But it is a huge leap to make a comedy about the death of a man whose policies led to or contributed to the death of millions. Several thousand people are killed during the course of the film, almost all of them off screen.

You need a strong stomach.

Stalin still has his death lists at the start of the film, those who are a risk or perceived as a risk to him, and we are not spared their rounding up nor their executions. To speak ill of him is to court death — your name will be recorded and disobeying him will leave your days numbered. But he is aging and dying, and those around him jockey for position as to who will rule and who will be in control — not necessarily the same thing. No one trusts anyone. No one is innocent, including the whole population of Russia, who would betray their relatives to save themselves.

The cast is superb — Steve Buscemi (strangely aged now) as Khrushchev, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Michael Palin as Molotov, Simon Russell Beale as Beria. Sometimes it feels like a Russia-set Sopranos, with bad taste ragging and teasing and betrayals, sometimes echoing the sycophancy of The Larry Sanders Show and inevitably there is shade of Malcolm Tucker in Beria, who knows where all the bodies are buried. Some of the actors — Palin — are cast against type, others build on familiar roles. Occasionally the all-star cast is distracting; Paul Whitehouse might have wandered off a Fast Show sketch, the identity of the conductor (Jeremy Edwards) eluded me until the credits and is that someone from The Inbetweeners? But it is a fine ensemble, even if Jason Isaacs and Rupert Friend steal their scenes.

Still, we are laughing at misery, and real suffering, even if much of the dialogue is laugh out funny.

Perhaps we needed to care a little more. Perhaps a couple more deaths needed to be shocking, rather than same old, same old.

We can see the Blair-Brown-Mandelson triangle, we can see the court of Trump, we can even see the betrayals of the Brexiteers and Tory machinations. But none of them … killed people. Not directly, although their policies have. The satire’s target is a little woolly.

Whilst inevitably, someone else comes out on top, the historical hindsight reminds us that Leonid Brezhnev is in the wings, waiting his moment in the limelight. Gorbachev is twenty to thirty years away — but that thaw gave way to Yeltsin and Putin. And, meanwhile, in North Korea…

It’s funny, yes. But what can you do?

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