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The Death of One Man Is a Comedy

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Nicola Dove/Festival du Film Britannique de Dinard

MOVIE REVIEW
The Death of Stalin (2017)

I once asked a Russian colleague why all Russian movies were so depressing; he laughed at me and said, “Look at the history!” I said there must be some amusing Russian movies, and he laughed again and said they were so complicated and culture-specific they were impossible for a foreigner to understand. Five minutes’ rigorous research on Wikipedia informs me that the circumstances of “The Death of Stalin” are broadly historically accurate. It is as yet unclear as to whether that will make me feel better.

Non-Russians such as writer-director Armando Iannucci and writers David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows (adapting a French comic) understand the potency of combining political power and human weakness, or drama with slapstick. Mr. Iannucci got his start working on Alan Partridge, a most beloved British comedy institution, before hitting the big time with satires of British (“The Thick of It”) and American ( “Veep”) political power. So why not go for broke? Just as Monty Python took on Jesus, Mr. Iannucci has taken on Stalin.

Well, not Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) so much. More the circle of psychopaths, sycophants, alcoholics and murderers who surrounded him. On the last night of Stalin’s life, he is entertaining his top circle at a dinner party: Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) the most decent of this rotten crew; Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) the number two; Molotov (Michael Palin), a man without an opinion to call his own; and Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the Putin of his day — as in, the head of the secret police, N.K.V.D. Beria moves through the prisons of Moscow, personally torturing and raping prisoners in between breaks to circulate the updated enemies list and advise on the best way to murder someone’s family in front of them. Mr. Beale is a giant of the British stage, best known for comedy, which gives the right edge to his personal reign of terror.

The comedic timing is impeccable throughout, with no weak links; and everyone goes balls-deep — no one more than Rupert Friend as Vasily, Stalin’s useless son who screams “I will not stand for this!” as six soldiers tackle him to the ground. Some of the jokes are reused from other of Mr. Iannucci’s shows, such as Khrushchev arriving at an important meeting with pajamas under his suit, panicked plotting in the back of a car, or the endless teasing Malenkov endures over his unfortunate haircut. The movie never once makes the mistake of punching down, but it’s hard to laugh when Stalin’s haunted daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) begs Beria to dredge his gulags for an old boyfriend he took away 10 years previously. (Good heavens, Wikipedia tells me the actual Svetlana died in 2011.) The fear is pervasive and inescapable. All of these people have blood on their hands and would arrange your murder as soon as sneeze. Immediately after Stalin’s body is removed from his deathbed, the smarter housemaids and kitchen staff run — because N.K.V.D. staff arrive instantly to round everyone up, either shooting them dead in the driveway or throwing them into trucks for deportation.

The small moments of humanity stand out. When Khrushchev arrives home after a night’s drinking with Stalin, his wife (Sylvestra Le Touzel) takes notes while he still remembers what happened, so they can analyze over breakfast how best to stay in Stalin’s favor. A running gag has Malenkov demanding a small girl to appear beside him for a balcony photo op, then complaining the girls are too old, too small, etc. Finally an acceptable one is found, and as she stands silently watching under a soldier’s guard, Khrushchev, Malenkov and Molotov have a furious and obscene argument. The soldier covers the small girl’s ears.

Somehow it’s the Red Army and its denizens that are the heroes of this film. Or perhaps that is just the strength of Jason Isaacs’ performance as General Georgy Zhukov, who bursts in shortly before the funeral starts to insult everyone in the room and announce in his Yorkshire accent that he will represent the whole Red Army at the buffet. Is it because he is an ordinary, decent criminal, while the others have been so twisted by their proximity to Stalin that they are no longer human beings? At one point minister of labor Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley) says, “I’ve had nightmares that made more sense,” so perhaps not. Mr. Isaacs single-handedly kicks the whole movie up a notch, with a no-nonsense directness and willingness for action that somehow shame the rest of it.

Maybe that’s because Zhukov tells it how it is, in a world where double-think is standard. Molotov is an unimaginative obeyer of the party line, and Mr. Palin has several fine moments as he untwists the circumstances into the line he can understand. But that has some horrific personal bite: Beria has had Molotov’s wife (Diana Quick) imprisoned for him to torture personally, solely to mess with Molotov. But when it becomes expedient to release her, Beria does, and then stares in astonishment as Molotov explains that of course Beria had had to arrest the treasonous sow because the party doesn’t make mistakes.

How pleasing it must have been for Ukrainian actress Olga Kurylenko to participate as the only person in this world who is unafraid of death.

But why tell this story now? Mr. Iannucci has carved a fine career from cutting the powerful down to size, but without making the subtext text. Charlie Chaplin made “The Great Dictator” as Nazism was on the march, but he (and his backers) had the courage to take aim at the current enemy. Or do the filmmakers think there are too many different ways in which we are meant to apply their lesson? As America learns lawsuits won’t stop a hurricane, and the British government juggles incompetence with austerity, and the dark-web botnet spreads ever wider, and elections in Catalonia and Kenya draw blood, and more countries put basic human rights to the referendum, and 2017 isn’t over yet, are we meant to end up like the hero of the Russian film “Morphia”: doped to the gills and too shell-shocked to do anything other than laugh our asses off, so we won’t feel the bullet in our brain?

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