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.
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).
I think it’s reasonable to hold the things you love when you’re a teenager to a different set of critical standards. People who got into Star Wars back when that was first out can sometimes be unreasonably dogged in defending it, even though, well, it’s not really all that good (the first one has a sort of camp enjoyability to it, I’ll admit). Life of Brian comes from that same era, and even features a short sequence that nods towards the recent popularity of that aforementioned space-set blockbuster, and needless to say it was a common fixture on the television during my formative years, at which time I found it to be pretty great — though I always liked Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) more myself. I haven’t seen any of the Python output in decades, though, so it was interesting to revisit this foundational text as part of my Criterion-watching project, and for all that I want to say it’s still a shining beacon of 1970s British comedy (and maybe it is; I don’t know much of the era’s competition), it has sadly not aged all that well for me. Sure it’s always worthwhile to take aim at misplaced religious zealotry — something that I’m sure we’re all aware continues to be relevant today — and Brian takes some good shots at this kind of small-minded thinking by having its not-very-Messianic figure hounded to his death. However, it’s still ultimately a group of middle-class Oxbridge graduates being sophomorically silly about the Bible; I don’t believe that’s a case for any kind of censorship, it’s just not always as funny as it thinks it is (and these lads, particuarly Terry Jones, playing women continues to grate). Still, there remain some classic comedy sequences, the best of them skewering po-faced 1970s socialist groups, as in the ‘what have they ever done for us?’ debate chaired by John Cleese’s Reg (of the People’s Front of Judaea, not to be confused with their mortal enemies the Judaean People’s Front), or an ‘action’ committee he chairs near the end. I suppose one’s reaction to this is dependent on the level of nostalgia you cling to around the Pythons, but I do honestly wonder how the kids of today find this stuff. Ultimately, it feels very much of its era.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Terry Jones; Writers Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Jones and Michael Palin; Cinematographer Peter Biziou; Starring Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 15 November 2015 (and many times at home on VHS, Wellington, in my youth).