Film: When Uncle Joe had to go

Written By: Ian Hernon
Published: November 21, 2017 Last modified: November 22, 2017

The Death of Stalin
Director: Armando Iannucci

As a long-time correspondent in the House of Commons, I couldn’t stand Yes, Minister, because I could spot the flaws, exacerbated by the spin that it was the favourite of both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn for similar reasons. I felt much the same about The Thick of It – which I saw as an over-educated posh boy’s view of the corridors of power. So it was with some trepidation that I went to see Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, feeling that it would be a small, sarcastic movie mocking terrible events which would play just as well, or as badly, on the small screen. I was totally wrong.

Instead this is a deeply serious, uproariously funny film with big-screen production values, beautifully written with a cast to die for. It squeezes into a modest running time the last minutes of Josef Stalin and the subsequent mad scramble of the Red Court to either survive him or succeed him. It poses the question, still pertinent across the world, of what happens when a total dictator dies but there’s no Plan B, because until then it is suicide to even suggest a Plan B.

There are some historical errors – it is based on a comic book rather than strict historical sources – and the timeline is a bit off, but so what? Director Iannucci and his co-writers have succinctly captured the panic and farce which we now know to be broadly true. And the humour becomes a guilty pleasure because of the quality of writing, direction and cast.

Amongst the latter, it is hard to pick out favourites. Simon Russell Beale dominates much of the film as the ultimate puppet-master Beria. Jason Isaacs plays Zhukov as a bluff, dangerous Yorkshireman. Steve Buscemi is a snivelling and unscrupulous Kruschev. Rupert Friend is a drunken, idiotic Vasili Stalin, and Andrea Riseborough his sister Svetlana. Jeffrey Tambor is Malenkov, who Stalin allowed to be his deputy because he was useless, stupid, indecisive – and therefore no threat. A stroke of genius was to allow them to use their own accents rather than mannered, bogus Kremlin-speak.

There are many others with walk-on parts, such as Paddy Considine, Paul Whitehouse and a subdued Michael Palin. And two young Red Army soldiers – uncredited – who say and do nothing when guarding Stalin’s empty suite but whose glances at each other sum up the terror of the times.

There are many such blink-and-you’ll miss it moments, which is why it merits a second, or third, viewing. It is the best film so far this year, and one that has had an impact: a high-ranking culture official said the Russian ­authorities were considering a ban on the film, which, he alleged, could be part of a ”Western plot to destabilise Russia by causing rifts in ­society”. What’s up, Vladimir? No sense of­ ­humour?

About Ian Hernon

Ian Hernon is Deputy Editor of Tribune