A look at The Death Of Stalin (MA 15+)
EVEN though 1953 seems a long time ago, and indeed it is, this film recreates the scenes of Moscow and the antics of Russian dictator Josef Stalin and his henchmen as if it was yesterday.
Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is listening to a Mozart concerto from his dacha living room and rings the radio station to order a personal recording.
Radio Moscow’s station manager and his technical assistant have failed to hook up the broadcast with a recording device so they order the doors shut and tell the musicians they’ll have to perform the whole thing again.
People from the streets outside the radio station are herded in to make the re-seated audience larger and hence the sound of clapping more deafening.
When the conductor refuses to go through the whole process once again the secret service policemen are sent to another maestro’s apartment.
He’s yanked out of bed, clad in his dressing gown and driven back to the studio.
Task completed, the radio station personnel bundle up the completed masterpiece disc and hand it to the same secret service men to deliver to the boss.
Stalin, a tad grumpy at the delay but unknowing of the drama surrounding the recording, takes the record at his bedroom door and proceeds to load it onto his player.
His dozing henchmen are still downstairs watching a John Wayne western. They’re clearly not allowed to go to bed before the boss whose privacy must never be infringed upon.
So it’s not until the next morning that the breakfast-bearing cook finds Stalin on the floor of his bedroom. He’s succumbed to a brain haemorrhage and is barely alive.
This is where writer-director Armando Iannucci introduces us to his cast, Stalin’s underlings who are all set to jostle for power.
Prime among them are a very chubby Beria (Simon Russell Beale) who’s the head of the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB), Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi of Fargo and TV series Boardwalk Empire fame) and Stalin’s deputy Malenkov (a dweeby Jeffrey Tambor).
Iannucci’s masterstroke is that no one has to use a fake Russian accent. So we have a Cockney Stalin, a Brooklyn-New York Khrushchev, a posh London Beria and an earnest foreign minister Molotov played by Michael Palin.
Of course because of Stalin’s purges and mass executions there’s no doctor around to diagnose the leader’s illness.
Eventually a superannuated, rather ancient medico, is found along with some assistants aged in their mid-20s.
I found plenty to laugh about in all of this but you have to remind yourself you’re in the company of some of the mid-20th century’s most despotic sociopaths.
We see scenes from Moscow’s prisons and the gulags of Siberia along with one scene where peasants have come by train from the backblocks for Stalin’s funeral, only to be gunned down by Beria’s secret police when they keep marching towards Red Square.
My wife and members of her book club were a bit put off by these glimpses of the Moscow horror show although Iannucci continues the main story in his breezy matter-of-fact style.
In all of this it’s clear Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Stalina (Andrea Riseborough) must be looked after and Beria takes it upon himself to act as her guardian.
He, of course, is locked in a lethal duel with Khrushchev for the top job, but we soon discover that the latter is well able to outmanoeuvre Beria.
Khrushchev is assisted by imposing Field Marshall Zhukov (Jason Isaccs) whose late arrival in the plot is offset by his chest full of medals and a bayonet or sword scar down his right cheek.
And even though we know the outcome of this 1953 power play the tension and terror – and the laughs – continue right up till the time the end credits roll.