Film reviews: The Death of Stalin & Unrest

The verdict on Armando Iannucci’s black comedy and a documentary that explores the plight of ME sufferers

The Death of Stalin is the latest film from Armando Iannucci, the man behind Veep, In the Loop, and The Day Today. As anyone who has seen those shows will attest, his ability to predict and mirror today’s political machinations and mishaps is uncanny. As Theresa May stumbled over her recent conference speech, ‘The Thick of It’ trended on Twitter.

His latest creation is a ‘loosely’ historical film, that aims to mock the past, as well as resonate with the current political climate. The manoeuvres for power that took place in the Kremlin around the time of Stalin’s were, according to many accounts, the stuff of high farce – and the film takes that idea and runs with it. Early in proceedings, with Stalin lying unconscious on the carpet, the dictator’s cronies call a committee meeting before getting a doctor in to help. And, as they try and lift him, there’s slapstick fun to be had as the men take it turns to accidentally kneel in the wet patch their expiring boss has left on the carpet.

However, The Death of Stalin’s real achievement is in locating the darkness of this story amid the tomfoolery. Perhaps at times, the violence being done in the name of the Soviet Union is kept a little too much in the background, but Simon Russell Beale, who plays security chief Lavrentiy Beria as a muderous gangster (Tony Soprano multiplied by a thousand) deserves special mention. Jason Isaacs does too for his turn as the brash, bruising Georgy Zhukov, who treats a coup like a spring clean. Steve Buscemi also does great work as Kruschev. ‘Why do I have to organise Stalin’s funeral?’ he says at one point, echoing his Reservoir Dogs whine, ‘Why am I Mr Pink?’

Also out this week is Unrest, a Sundance award-winning documentary about Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome), which sees director Jennifer Brea turn the camera on herself, her husband and other sufferers around the world. The result is an intimate essay about a disease which, she says, has been painfully ignored.

Diagnosed aged 28, midway through her Harvard PhD and shortly after marrying her husband Omar, she’s left bedridden, painfully sensitive to light and sound and with intermittent mental incapacity. ‘This is the least chivalrous I have ever been,’ says Omar as he films her crawling upstairs. Later, we see Jen barely able to speak, sobbing to Omar that she’s robbed him of his life.

Unrest was made with the help of more than 2,500 Kickstarter backers and 10 independent funders. As well as Jen’s very personal story, it also covers the social and political history of ME and, at one point, it briefly becomes a suspenseful thriller as it relays the story of the story of a young Danish sufferer who was forcibly removed from her parents. As a film essay, it’s comprehensive and anticipates questions. More importantly, it packs a significant emotional punch.


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