The Strange Affair of Uncle Joe

I should have gone to see THE DEATH OF STALIN when it came out, as I really admire Armando Iannucci’s work — maybe I didn’t because I don’t think he’s entirely cinematic. Maybe he’ll get there. This one only becomes really satisfying visually during the end credits, which repurpose the USSR’s revisionist airbrushing to witty effect, in a way that’s funny and uncomfortable, as is the film.

I remember getting into a weird discussion on Twitter with a Russian who was offended by the film, hampered by the fact that I hadn’t seen it and he had. He was disgusted that the film gets laughs out of Stalin having pissed himself. While I suppose laughing at a sick man isn’t nice, it’s still Stalin, and if that’s the thing you single out in this movie as being unsuitable for comic treatment, as opposed to Beria’s mass murders and vicious sexual opportunism, you have a problem with your priorities and are fonder of the late dictator than you are to admit.

Beale was ROBBED of the role of Dick Cheney. Or else Beria ought to have played it.

This is certainly very black comedy indeed — the characters are all totally lost to any sense of decency or compassion or compassion. The various political animals in Iannucci’s The Thick of It and IN THE LOOP were similarly bereft, and one interesting comparison between his various works (I haven’t seen enough of Veep but it looked good, but maybe lighter?) would be that the politburo bastards here aren’t necessarily worse, at a fundamental human level, that the New Labour and Tory scum of his previous outings — it’s merely that the structures of a dictatorship deform them differently than those of a democracy. Malcolm Tucker probably can’t have you killed, directly. But if he was working for Stalin he would surely have to, and might find he got a kick out of it.

A great many striking performances to enjoy here. The mingling of British and American actors and comics doesn’t always work — maybe in the past it’s been evidence of productions too eager to turn a profit, losing track of how to achieve a unified style. IN THE LOOP of course, by its very story, had to mix the two, and did so very sensibly and effectively. Here, it’s simply a question of ignoring the accents — which you can’t totally do with Stalin being played as a bluff northerner by Adrian McLoughlin (actually a southerner). But the Americans and Brits are equally strong. Fiona observed that casting Michael Palin as a ruthless state official works just as well here as it did in BRAZIL, casting “the nicest man in the world” (as Gilliam called him) as far against type as possible. Palin and Paul Whitehouse have to grab a few moments here and there, as does Paul Chahidi, who’s REALLY good at that, but Steve Buscemi and the amazing Simon Russell Beale and Jeffrey Tambor have centre stage. Then Jason Isaacs walks in (in slow motion, as do some of the others, but he really owns it) and practically blasts all opposition aside. Remarkable — the performances and dynamics just keep getting better as the thing goes on.

Nicky Smith, who features so prominently and entertainingly in our latest podcast, was telling me about Iannucci’s forthcoming THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD, which has innovative racially-blind casting, with Dev Patel in the lead and a white actor as his mother, and appearances by greats like Benedict Wong. Of course, Victorian London was full of people of different races, but Dickens largely neglected to write about them. This is something different — casting people because they’re good, not because they’re racially “appropriate.” It’ll be amusing to see conservative critics tiptoeing around this. Anyway, I wonder if Iannucci noticed how white the cast of TDOS was, and asked why, if we can sit Jeffrey Tambor and Michael Palin round the same table, both playing Russians, then why not Delroy Lindo or Thandie Newton?

8 Responses to “The Strange Affair of Uncle Joe”

  1. Stalin and Beria were Georgian, not Russian, a difference which Red Monarch emphasised by Colin Blakely and David Suchet playing them with Northern Irish Protestant accents, whereas – except for Jason Isaacs’, perhaps – accents aren’t as significant here. Similarly, with racially-blind casting: once you adopt it, with its virtues, you cannot use race as a way of “coding” characters. In a racially-blind Wuthering Heights, say, the possible black ancestry of Heathcliff can’t be brought out.

  2. I can’t wait for that David Copperfield – along with Clooney’s Catch-22 series and the new Moominvalley series, it’s one of the things I keep forcing myself to keep in my mind so I don’t miss it when it finally arrives.

  3. Yes, the one thing racially-blind casting stops you doing is addressing race as an issue, but it does mean that more non-white actors would get work and not just in shows that are about race. I remember that the Ted Danson Gulliver’s Travels wasn’t particularly good but it was nice that it had occurred to somebody that this wasn’t a realistic text and so who says everyone has to be white?

    My worry about the Clooney Catch-22 is that I haven’t found any of his other things very compelling, though he seems very likable. It does seem like the tone would be within his reach. And if he is able to maintain the novel’s desperation then that would solve the big problem I find in Goodnight & Good Luck, Monuments Men etc, which is a staggering lack of dramatic tension. He’s an actor! Doesn’t he realise he needs that?

  4. ehrenstein47 Says:

    “Good Night and Good Luck” is first rate. The rest of Clooney’s films are slack.

    Clooney HIMSELF can be quite exciting as for instance here —

  5. I enjoyed GN&GL, but noted that some critic’s remark that it was strangely lacking in tension was true. But it worked OK without it. One ASSUMES it has tension because of the subject, but in fact it doesn’t. But then all his other films have been free of drama 90% of the time and haven’t worked.

  6. This film was a disappointment, I found. The script was funny and the acting sublime, but it really needed a more formally distinctive director to do it justice and bring out the bleak absurdity. Sorrentino, Lanthimos, Haneke, German Jr…

  7. Jonathan Wertheim Says:

    I think the Catch-22 material might help – plus what appears to be a good cast and good creative team supporting Clooney. If it goes well, it might hit the notes “The Men Who Stare At Goats” was supposed to hit, but completely failed to.

  8. The bleakness is sort of inherent, as is the absurdity, it just needs a few more strong decisions to make the film look like what it’s supposed to be – a kind of absurd historic nightmare. I don’t think the visuals do much with any of those elements.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: