*Spoilers* (Though it feels stupid putting a spoiler warning on historical fact).
I loved this film. Genuinely loved it.
But for all the Thick of It and Veep fans out there, it is… a much stronger dose of cynicism than you’re used to. This film is not afraid to go for genuine darkness – the friend I went to see it with was sincerely distressed by how brutal the ending is, while knowing it was fully deserved.
I genuinely want to sit every “sick of choosing the lesser of two evils” gobshite down and make them watch this film. Because I cannot think of a clearer illustration that you always, always choose the lesser of two evil when given the choice.
The film makes this brutally clear. Khruschev is not a good person, by anyone’s standards, but his Russia is unquestionably preferable to Stalin’s or Beria’s. And Steve Buscemi is fabulous in the part, simply fabulous. I know he won’t get nominated for an Oscar, because the Academy never gives comedic performances their due, but he absolutely should.
Jason Isaacs is a standout. Before the film was released I was mildly peeved at his casting – Zhukov was many things, but dashingly handsome wasn’t one of them – however, seeing his performance reconciled me completely. His introductory shot may be one of my favourite in any film ever – it’s so gloriously, Capital M for Manly that it seems like a parody, yet it almost circles around to be sincere, because the film makes it very, very clear that, whatever else, Zhukov is a stone-cold badass.
Rupert Friend is hilarious, and not afraid to go large, as Stalin’s alcoholic son… but it felt like the part of Svetlana was written for Anna Chlumsky, if only because of the way the camera continually focuses on her reactions to things. (Andrea Riseborough is good, don’t get me wrong, but she’s not as expressive as Chlumsky, so the impact is lessened).
I was quite surprised to see that they actually filmed in Moscow – and I’d be very curious to know how much of it was filmed there, and if the local government knew what kind of film they were agreeing to. My understanding has always been that Russians are more ambivalent about Stalin’s legacy than outright condemnatory… but I ain’t Russian, so what do I know. (I mean, my opinion is…if ever someone deserved to die alone and in their own filth, Stalin deserved it, but I’m not sure that’s a widely shared opinion in Russia).
There’s a fascinating thing around sexual violence that the film does which… I’m not sure it ever fully resolves. All of the male characters have coerced sex from someone – this is made very clear – and yet, in Beria’s final trial, the accusation that gets everyone really angry, is that he is a rapist and he preyed on children. Are those feelings sincere? It’s very hard to tell, and the film doesn’t make it clear – which I actually think is to its benefit. Do they know they’re hypocrites – did they feel they had to comply with the sexual violence because of the environment Beria created – is assaulting adult women somehow better? I’m not sure Iannucci knows – and the ambiguity of whether the outrage at sexual violence is genuine or not introduces an element of complexity in our reactions to the scene.
Beria is unequivocally a monster, and Khruschev is unquestionably better, and yet… was he only a monster on a grander scale? And what does that say about us if a lesser monster is the best there is to offer. Beria’s execution is purposefully not cathartic, I think, and the film takes a kind of…bracingly practical attitude to the new order. It’s better because it has to be.