Gerry Rowe is disappointed by The Death of Stalin.
In Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin’s ‘Drop the Dead Donkey’, the object of satire is a thoroughly British media company owned by equally feared and reviled tycoon Royston Merchant, never himself seen on screen. Who in their right, lefty mind wouldn’t have laughed at the egotistical antics of insecure editors and managers, presenters and journalists, as their ambitions and prejudices came into weekly mutual conflict?
Despite the inclusion of 30 seconds of topical news jokes, Drop the Dead Donkey didn’t rely on hard news for laughs, sensibly enough. Hard news is seldom a laughing matter. Drop the Dead Donkey created a parallel comic world in which the balance between plausibility and absurdity made it possible to laugh wholeheartedly.
Iannucci’s The Thick of It targeted a media-enhanced perception of New Labour politics as a perpetual war waged by spin on substance. It too benefited, as popular entertainment, from eschewing close examination of real events such as the financial crash. Malcolm Tucker may have been loosely based on Alistair Campbell but there was no discussion of how the latter might have been involved in, say, the presentation of events surrounding Dr David Kelly's death. You could laugh at the Machiavellian spin-doctor, craven ministers and self-serving civil servants because the scenarios offered fairly harmless parody with which you could feel comfortable.
The problem with The Death of Stalin is not that the story of infighting in the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union following Stalin’s demise does not contain many elements of farce. The difficulty is that we are dealing with real people and events that, for better or worse, affected the lives of all of us both in the West and the East. The reality of what was done, good or bad, under the Soviet Union doesn’t get much of an airing in the Brian Rix style treatment of the death itself, and the comically-choreographed violence and jockeying for position.
While the evils on display are treated largely as comedy, the largely positive achievements of the Russian Revolution, which we’re celebrating this centenary year, and the Soviet state (overthrow of Tsardom, removal of the provisional government, rapid industrialization, great improvements in literacy and education, the defeat of Germany in the Great Patriotic War) pass unmentioned. Thus Beria, Khruschev, Malenkov, Molotov et al are made to represent little more than naked, ruthless ambition.
Iannucci will be well aware that mere farce is not up to the task of depicting history with any depth. One might therefore ponder why he opted to give this subject an inadequate treatment rather than, for example, the events surrounding the invasion and occupation of Iraq. There is a safer distance, in space and time, between us in Britain now and Russia in 1953. There is also a received wisdom here that the Soviet Union was an unmitigated disaster, creating a ready audience for tired jokes about failing lifts and lavatory cisterns. The film does nothing to challenge or undermine these reactionary stereotypes, and indeed the humour often relies on them.
If you have little knowledge of the events depicted, the relentlessness of the farce may cause you no problems. Very few among a full house were laughing out loud and hearty when I saw it. The film is watchable but best serves the unintended purpose of provoking thought as to how it might better have served its subject matter and audience.