The Death of Stalin (2017)

In new releases this week, there’s a limited release for Chinese documentary Present. Perfect., which I’ve already reviewed, so do check that out if you are able to, because I liked it. The big film out this week, though, is Armando Iannucci’s new film which premiered at last year’s London Film Festival, The Personal History of David Copperfield, so naturally I’ve been doing a themed week of adaptations of Dickens… That’s not actually true; I just forgot to set up any posts to go out this week. That said, I haven’t seen all that many Dickens-themed films recently — though the Criterion Collection has David Lean’s 1940s ones of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, and there was that Ralph Fiennes film which touched on his life, The Invisible Woman (2013). So here’s a review of Iannucci’s last film.

I like Armando Iannucci’s comedy quite often, and here I laughed (or at least smiled) quite a bit. The performances are fantastic, and there’s more than one candidate for stealing this film (Rupert Friend or Michael Palin are highlights, and Jason Isaacs is just brilliant), while Simon Russell Beale as Beria and Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev are just as strong and consistent as ever. And yet, there’s a dark heart to this blithe blustering comedy of political ineptitude that’s barely ever hidden: the idea that when murderous despotic regimes are allowed to run their course for decades, the moral vacuum that results amongst those who remain is so total that even as we want to cheer for those who are most sure of themselves (and Isaacs’ Zhukov is surely chief among them), at the same time these characters all behave with utterly repugnant immorality. I suppose the way that Beria’s sexual depravity is woven into the comedy is a case in point — hardly hiding it, but also making it something of a throwaway sideshow to the comedic japery of authoritarian power struggles. I liked it, and I admired it as filmmaking, but seemingly in spite of my better instincts.

The Death of Stalin film posterCREDITS
Director Armando Iannucci; Writers Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin (based on the graphic novel La Mort de Staline by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin); Cinematographer Zac Nicholson; Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Andrea Riseborough, Paddy Considine; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 23 October 2017 (and again on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 2 November 2019).

W.E. (2011)

I think it’s fair to say that W.E., which depicts the love affair between King Edward VIII (or “David” when he wasn’t the king) and Wallis Simpson, got a bit of a critical kicking when it came out. That’s not to say that certain elements of the film aren’t easy to deride — some of the scenes just seem misjudged or laughable (an elderly Wallis dancing for her ailing husband comes to mind), and the camera has a tendency to wander a bit loosely — but I imagine a lot of it comes down to its framing narrative, which uses historical objects as a means to enter the past. This fetishisation of material things is, indeed, an overriding element of the story — objects, clothes, set design, hairstyles and make-up, all of these things are fawned over by the camera and lavishly depicted — though it shouldn’t really come as a surprise given the film’s creator. But that needn’t be a drawback or a criticism — if anything it’s just making explicit the pitfalls of recreating historical events for the screen. In any case, the history is very much nested within a modern story of Wally (Abbie Cornish), who has grown up obsessed by the historical romance, and in communing with their personal effects at a Sotheby’s auction, via flashbacks starring Andrea Riseborough and James D’Arcy as the royal couple, comes to understand that their love affair wasn’t perfect. At the same time, her own marriage is foundering and she is falling for a security guard, Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), hence the “W.E.” of the title refers to both of these couples. The film isn’t perfect, but the actors are all excellent, and moments of absurdity aside, this is on the whole a handsomely-mounted period production.

W.E. film posterCREDITS
Director Madonna; Writers Madonna and Alek Keshishian; Cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski; Starring Andrea Riseborough, Abbie Cornish, James D’Arcy, Oscar Isaac; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Saturday 9 January 2016.

Welcome to the Punch (2013)

This film and Parker are different takes on the same kind of thing — action-oriented thriller japery — with the exception that the latter at least accepts its generic role and treats it straightforwardly as pulp with a minimum of fuss. Punch is overlaid with a spurious layer of political corruption that seems rather redundant, when all it really wants to be is about chiselled guys shooting lots of guns, of which there is plenty.

But more than that, it’s a London film, which intrigues me as a resident of this city. Interestingly, it presents a side of London that’s been seen a bit less often in films, being the modern shiny glass-and-steel London of recent decades. In fact, the filmmakers are very careful to avoid showing any old or touristy bits of London, which itself makes the film a fascinating document. It starts with a chase scene (a fairly incomprehensible chase scene) around Canary Wharf, shot when it’s at its emptiest and most eerie (so, a weekend evening then, presumably). It then takes in a panoply of modern buildings in the City, with plenty of helicopter shots over the top of the Shard, and one scene supposedly set on the roof of St Bart’s Hospital where the two characters are framed with Elephant & Castle’s Strata London tower in the near background (for non-London readers, that’s an impossible geography).

In fact, the look of the film is all very stylish, with beautiful close-ups of faces framed by alienating modern architecture. There are plenty of forbidding and empty modern spaces drained of warmth and humanity, in which many large-bore weapons are unleashed.

This is all certainly an aspect of London, and yet it’s not a London I really recognise. Then again, the film is heavily focused on generic tropes, many of which have been transplanted from similar films set in the US (and to that extent, it certainly makes me question how much of this kind of stuff is really true over there; it is probably as much a myth in the US as it is in this film). This is not London so much as “London”, a city overrun by violent gun crime (expressed by a number of newspaper headlines and glimpsed news bulletins to this effect), in which the police are desperate to get their hands on weaponry in order to combat the terror the citizens feel just walking the streets. Obviously there are aspects of this that hark back to the mood around the time of the 2011 riots, and yet even then there was never really a sense that people felt afraid of the city or wanted more armed police on the streets.

It’s in the characters and their interactions that those generic tropes become even more keenly felt. Our tale revolves around a young cop (James McAvoy), damaged and embittered by his failed pursuit of a dangerous super-criminal years earlier (Mark Strong; it’s not clear exactly what his crimes are, but it seems as if theft at least is involved). There’s his new work partner (Andrea Riseborough), with whom McAvoy has some suppressed romantic sparks, who is heir to his impulsive streaks. There’s the distrustful work colleague (he wears glasses), and the avuncular boss (David Morrissey), beholden in some shady way to a presumed-crooked politican via his cagy PR handler. Then there’s the gang of criminals reunited to avenge a death, who in the denouement seem to be backed up by a small army of cannon fodder (but that’s not really a spoiler; it’s just that kind of film). There doesn’t seem to be any element of this film which is not familiar at some level, though the pus-filled gunshot injury that McAvoy tends throughout the film injects at least a small amount of ‘realism’ to the otherwise action-rote superhuman feats pulled off elsewhere by Strong’s bad guy.

Were it not for the excellent actors corralled to deliver the script, it would be far more easy to dismiss in its entirety as an (admittedly stylish) exercise in derivative genre cinema. In the end, the film uses an interesting take on London in the service of a by-numbers plot.

Director/Writer Eran Creevy; Cinematographer Ed Wild; Starring James McAvoy, Mark Strong, Andrea Riseborough, David Morrissey; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Tuesday 26 March 2013.