Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Two current movies about Russia, both gloriously snide but in different ways, open with discrete artistic performances. In Armando Iannucci’s impeccably sardonic and irreverent The Death of Stalin, it’s a Mozart piano concerto, going out live on radio. The producers of the broadcast have neglected to record it, and, implicitly on pain of death, must importune musicians and audience members to do the whole thing over again when Stalin demands a recording, locking down the studio before anyone can leave. Stalin dies that evening, but even after he’s gone, his various would-be successors are hardwired with fear to mimic his brutality and treachery and their ideological trappings.
Their obtuseness in doing so is both hilarious and genuine. Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev, in particular, is as archly cantankerous as his Carl Showalter was in Fargo. Khrushchev’s dyspeptic restraint, as against the gleefully extravagant savagery of intelligence chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale, flawless), turns not on mercy or morality but on circumstantial pragmatism.
Red Sparrow, a throwback espionage thriller directed by Francis Lawrence, starts with Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird. A male dancer lands hard on prima ballerina Dominika Egorova’s tibia – intentionally, it turns out – ending her career and triggering her recruitment as an intelligence officer trained in sexual manipulation, known as a “sparrow.” She is dispatched to determine the identity of a mole high up in Russian intelligence that the CIA is running by getting close to Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton, aptly understated), a workaday CIA case officer with a conscience and a strong libido. Then Dominika’s native ruthlessness, wit, and sense of destiny take over.
Played with consummate control and nasty, rough-trade panache by Jennifer Lawrence, she ultimately outsmarts everyone in the movie save for one, who’s an ally. She’s a feminist victor, but she has to take an awful lot of abuse to get there. Some have interpreted this dynamic as thinly veiled misogyny, but it seems defensible merely as grim commentary on the actual state of play in gender politics. At least it is the Neanderthal predilections of her predatory uncle and FSB handler – Matthias Schoenaerts, creepily reptilian – that spell his undoing. He is made to resemble Vladimir Putin, Stalin’s contemporary crypto-champion, who has called him a “complex figure.”
The art that kicks off each movie serves the same general purpose: to juxtapose a capacity for beauty and a proclivity for viciousness. Fairly or not, Russia’s embrace of both has been celebrated in film, and these movies continue the tradition. Inevitably, though, the topical subtext of The Death of Stalin and Red Sparrow is that even Putin’s Russia, resonant of Stalin’s, has prominent and powerful admirers. Yet in neither movie does the designated henchman survive the demise of a cruelly warped and corrupt system. In that respect, both films offer hope. They are rosier than they might appear at first blush.
The Death of Stalin, directed by Armando Iannucci; produced by Yann Zenou, Laurent Zeitoun, Nicolas Duval Adassovsky, Kevin Loader; written by Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin / Cast: Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Olga Kurylenko, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough.
Red Sparrow, directed by Francis Lawrence; screenplay by Justin Haythe; based on the book by Jason Matthews; produced by Peter Chernin, p.g.a. Steve Zaillian, Jenno Topping, p.g.a. David Ready, p.g.a. / Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, and Jeremy Irons.