Thursday, 28 June 2018

"The Death of Stalin" is the funniest new(ish) comedy film I've seen in years

We were in the mood for a mindless Hollywood action blockbuster last night - you know, one of those meaningless, fast-paced, machine-tooled...

...vehicles that Tom Cruise specialises in. But, despite an extensive trawl of the Sky, Netflix and Amazon Prime lists, we couldn't find a single one that didn't include the words "teen", "hilarious" or "Vin Diesel" in the description. So my wife suggested The Death of Stalin. I wasn't that keen, because modern comedy films are almost always disastrously less funny than they think they are. Besides, while I'm not particularly squeamish when it comes to comic writers tackling delicate topics, I wondered if the death of one of the 20th Century's three bloodiest psychopathic tyrants was really a suitable basis for a laughfest; and (I know this will sound petty), but, as most film-makers these days are lefties, I worried that there would be a degree of softsoaping involved - the easily demonstrable fact that Stalin was as great a monster as Hitler or Mao doesn't prevent a depressingly significant number of leftists from harbouring a perverted and sickening regard for "Uncle Joe" (just ask Jeremy Corbyn's press secretary) .
I needn't have worried: Stalin is portrayed as the crude, banal, loveless, cunning, compassionless, demonically sadistic goblin he undoubtedly was, while his toadying entourage come across as a festering pile of cowardly, thuggish, morally and intellectually despicable, subhuman waste matter. The script - based on a French graphic novel, and written by the film's director, Armando Iannucci (Knowing Me, Kowing You with Alan Partidge, The Thick of It, In the Loop etc.) together with his regular collaborators, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows - is an obscenity-studded, character-revealing masterpiece. As for the acting, it's simply brilliant: the two main roles are taken by Steve Buscemi, who's splendid as Stalin's scheming clown prince, Khrushchev, and Simon Russell Beale, who gives the film's standout performance as the casually malevolent paedophile, Lavrentiy Beria. Rupert Friend as Stalin's mental wreck of an alcoholic son Vasily, and Andrea Riseborough as the fragile, febrile Svetlana are both top-notch - but Jason Isaacs as that fearless, foul-mouthed brute, Field Marshal Zhukov is so relentlessly funny, he almost steals the picture.

Yes, there are historical inaccuracies, and, yes, there are occasions when I felt uneasy at finding  scenes of killing and torture funny - in particular when Beria walks through his "office", accompanied by a barrage of offscreen screams, gunfire, and people shouting "Long live Stalin!" a moment before being liquidated, and the extended "falling dominoes" slaughter sequence at Stalin's dacha - but, from everything one has read, this is exactly what it was like, and while it's utterly horrifying, the weird, ghastly, inhuman logic of totalitarianism is also, somehow, ludicrously comic - especially in the case of Soviet totalitarianism, which, after all,  rested on the assumption (blithely accepted by an army of useful idiot in the West) that it was somehow morally superior to wicked capitalism. This is what happens when countries are ruled by whim and diktat, rather than laws.

Can't wait to see it again.

Now, if I could just figure out how to squeeze the observation "You're not even a person - you're a testicle!" into a conservation without offending anyone. 


  1. Mr. Gronmark, you should be a film critic, I mean professionally.
    My old mate (if I can call him that) Boris who wasn't terribly keen on Uncle Joe, and as for Beria..., would have loved this film.

    1. It was great black comedy. Loved the running joke about which insincere mourner was going to end up having to kneel in the urine.

    2. I suspect the film mirrored the antics of the current Conservative Cabinet too accurately for Boris to fully enjoy it, southern man! If Theresa May had failed to get the Brexit bill passed this week, Boris and his colleagues would be in a similar frenzy right now.

      Agreed, Helen - and the bit where they move Stalin's corpse is pure comedy genius. I may have to watch the whole thing again this weekend.