Three nights out in a row on work nights, and my ability to describe and process any sort of story is starting to fade…(cue undergrad me sneering over her grammar books in the pub) so though I enjoyed this movie a lot, I’m not sure I’ve got too much to say about it.
The main thing that I keep coming back to is that I don’t feel this is a story I should have been taking sides in. There’s no one I should have been rooting for involved in these events. And yet. In this week of completely unsurprising headlines about various political figures and Hollywood names who struggle to keep their wandering hands in check (and far worse), Simon Russel Beale’s smug Beria made such a potent villain that I would have cheered on any other scumbag willing to set him on fire. And so I did. Steve Buscemi’s Khrushchev was a man constantly on the back-foot, seemingly unable to keep pace with the scheming around him, but who doesn’t love an underdog? And then there was Michael Palin’s cuddly Molotov, who missed his wife, narrowly missed his own execution, and remained cringingly loyal to the cause throughout. By the time Jason Isaacs strode up as Zhukov, Yorkshire accent booming, I just wanted someone competent to catch up to Beria and stop him. Since seeing the movie, He Judges has been refreshing his already prodigious historical knowledge by reading up on the various plotters’ Wikipedia pages. I can’t quite bring myself to, but he assures me that what I suspect is true: no one involved was squeaky clean, and none of them were worth rooting for. Still, as he puts it, only Beria would have made a second Stalin. It’s the least worst outcome that you can get behind in this film.
Whilst I’m very much of the opinion that mocking the self-important is a great way to undermine them, The Death of Stalin manages to do this whilst retaining an air of menace. The main characters are all utterly absurd in their own ways, but the cumulative effect of the council is still there, and the incompetent jockeying for power results in a fair amount tragedy, though perhaps not as much as anything more calculated might have done. Besides, their incompetence is nicely set off and contextualised by the alcohol-soaked conspiracy theories of Vasily Stalin, who really is ineffectual when viewed alongside the councillors.
I kept thinking of Santa Evita, too, and the worship of dead tyrants by those who gained little enough under their rule. The Death of Stalin isn’t much interested in the wider implications of the scheming and posturing of its main characters, but the working folk supposedly represented by them get a brief look-in when Khrushchev forces the reopening of the trains and lets the mourners flood into Moscow. Thousands are shot by twitchy members of the NKVD, but it’s even more depersonalised than the accident of timing that saves some from the purges, whilst others are shot even as the order to cease arrives. A few scenes remain to bring the consequences home, such as the father who was given away by his son returning for an awkward family reunion, but this isn’t a movie where you’re encouraged to get too close to anyone at all; they’re either dreadful or likely to be short-lived, or both.
However, expanded from her historical role in events, Olga Kurylenko’s serene, disdainful Maria Yudina was a highlight (the one person whose Wikipedia page I was minded to look up). Projecting fearlessness when all around her seemed unable to contain their own panic, provoking anyone who she came into contact with, she felt like a truly wild card in amongst the others. Presumably that was why the graphic novel on which the film is based gave her a more prominent role in the scheming, as a catalyst to allow events to be told in a far shorter time frame than reality allowed.
Alright, this no doubt seems a terribly po-faced response to what was a genuinely funny film, but I’ve not got the energy to figure out how the council is meant to stand in for Theresa May’s cabinet of creeps and Brexiteers, and I’m often uneasy describing this kind of story that takes the essence of historical events and prods them into caricature. Perhaps it was all a bit above my head. Perhaps I can’t plot and run at the same time. Still, I’m more than happy to take the simple satisfaction of seeing Beria’s carefully-laid plans crumble into nothing (nothing that will benefit him, at least); his reliance on fear and threats to keep everyone in line ultimately undermined when people realise they’ve no need to be grateful for his small mercies if they just unite against him. Even if said unity is something of an illusion.