As a feature director, Armando Iannucci is three-for-three so far – we revisit In The Loop, The Death Of Stalin, and The Personal History Of David Copperfield.
Across 30 years in the industry, Armando Iannucci has proven himself to be one of our greatest satirists. As well as co-creating Alan Partridge, his UK and US TV works include The Thick Of It, Veep, Avenue 5, and (a personal favourite of mine) Time Trumpet, his mockumentary talking-head series set in the year 2031. But it’s only in the last decade that he’s turned his perspective to films.
For starters, he helmed Mouth, one of nine short films in the 1999 London Underground anthology film Tube Tales, and also contributed to the script of the brilliant Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, which we’ve covered in a previous episode of the Film Stories podcast.
But mostly, we’re looking at the three feature films he’s directed in just over 10 years. Each of these has seen him evolve and experiment more as a filmmaker, starting with the kind-of-sort-of TV adaptation in a contemporary setting and then, (as though amplified by some kind of “Time Trumpet”) making two more ambitious period dramas, comprising a grand tragi-comic historical piece set in Communist Russia and the finest Charles Dickens adaptation put to film for many years.
In recent interviews, he’s suggested that his next feature project will either be a social-media thriller or “a film about artificial intelligence”, which suggests he’s coming back to the present either way. Whatever’s next, Iannucci’s cinematic track record is already formidable…
In The Loop (2009)
“The British Government must be prepared to climb the mountain of conflict.”
Springing from one of his TV shows, Iannucci’s first feature film is (kind of, sort of) a big-screen adaptation of The Thick Of It. Produced during the hiatus between the 2007 specials and the third series (which debuted on BBC Two in autumn 2009) In The Loop is not in canon with either the British series or Iannucci’s HBO series Veep, which came afterwards, but appropriately enough, its portrait of the US-UK special relationship serves as a bridge between the two shows.
In a recent episode of the marvellous Script Apart podcast, Iannucci talked about the genesis of the project in his reading around how Tony Blair and Jack Straw had been “starstruck” during their visit to Washington to discuss the invasion of Iraq. What’s more, he wanted his first feature to be something quick and immediate, deciding to use the same cast and crew from The Thick Of It to tell a story on a bigger scale.
While the series focuses on the government’s press relations, the film takes things across the pond with international development minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) inadvertently becoming a key figure in the machinations of the US State Department over military intervention in the Middle East.
On blisteringly hilarious form, Peter Capaldi reprises his role as spin doctor Malcolm Tucker, while Thick Of It co-stars like Chris Addison, James Smith, Alex Macqueen, and Joanna Scanlan all play new characters in the periphery of the ensuing omnishambles. The only other returning actor who plays the same character from the TV show is Paul Higgins, who makes his final, most spectacular appearance as Jamie McDonald, “Scotland’s crossest man”, in the second half of the film.
True to the series’ look at the government away from Number 10, Downing Street, Iannucci intended to keep his look at US politics below the level of the White House and maintain the same handheld, unglamorous cinematography. Before writing the script, he visited the state department and Pentagon offices for research and gleaned details ranging from the office politics, where underlings jockey for face-time with important figures, to the deliberately innocuous naming of crucial committees and reports, such as the “Future Planning” committee.
Co-written by Iannucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, and Tony Roche, the film continues the same brand of gloriously profane one-liners and banter that made the series ever more popular during and after its original BBC run. Adding even more bite to the satire is the relative smallness of the UK in comparison to how much bigger things can get in the US.
The seeds of Veep are in here, with Anna Chlumsky and Zach Woods later playing regular roles in Iannucci’s Stateside satire, but it’s as close to a crossover between the BBC and HBO shows as we’d ever see, aside from Capaldi and Addison directing the odd episode. The key UK-US crossover here comes when Malcolm has his verbal showdown with the late, great James Gandolfini’s retired general, which is the clash of acting titans that makes it worth the price of admission alone.
But it’s quite right too, that Britain is well and truly sent up for its small-fry provincial concerns, whether it’s the seemingly trifling matter of a constituency office wall or the eventual co-opting of American intelligence reports to make it look as if we have the remotest idea what we’re talking about. The portrayal of US politicians and aides isn’t easy-peasy lemon-squeezy either, but the “difficult-difficult, lemon-difficult” idea of the UK on the world stage is made farcical by this hilarious send-up.
The Death Of Stalin (2017)
“My father was a warm and mighty bear, and we are his 170 million orphaned cubs.”
A pitch-black prelude neatly sets up the stakes of Iannucci’s second feature, which takes place in the USSR in 1953. Inspired by the satirical French comic books of the same name, The Death Of Stalin opens with Paddy Considine’s radio station manager receiving a personal call from the titular leader himself, requesting a recording of a classical music concert that has already finished. In only a short amount of screen time, Considine’s anxiety-driven performance (“Don’t worry, no-one is going to get killed! I promise!”) sets a suitably paranoid tone, as he desperately tries to rally an impromptu encore to avoid punishment.
But as the title suggests, the film soon sees Stalin (here played by Adrian McLoughlin as a sneering, Alan Sugar-esque managerial figure) shuffle off the mortal coil, leaving the surviving Presidium members locked in an undignified power struggle as they try to step into the breach during a tumultuous period of national mourning.
Lending a surreal quality to proceedings, the Presidium is peopled by cracking actors with entirely incompatible dialects, making a subtle jab at the history of Russian characters being played by British and American actors. While Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, and Michael Palin all sound very much like themselves, you’ve also got Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend swanning around as Stalin’s large adult children and the brilliant Jason Isaacs playing General Zhukov as a more decorated version of Jim Bowen.
The comic ensemble suggests a slightly lighter affair, (and a chocolate biscuit for whoever came up with the tagline “In the Kremlin, no one can hear you scheme”) but Iannucci doesn’t flinch from the violence of the subject matter here. While In The Loop still comes from a place of anger at small people in suits causing untold misery far away, The Death Of Stalin bristles at the savagery inflicted, even unwittingly, as a result of their backstabbing.
Granted, it pursues absurd diversions like Tambor’s Georgy Malenkov agonising over casting a little girl in his first portrait to their logical and illogical extremes, and gets huge laughs in the process. But the human cost of the ego, incompetence, and fragility on display in the halls of power isn’t remotely funny and isn’t treated as such. The Death Of Stalin is hilarious when it wants to be, but serious when it has to be.
Along with co-writers David Schneider and Ian Martin, Iannucci brings a much darker satirical style to this one. It may have taken a while for the director to return to filmmaking, (he wrapped up The Thick Of It and moved onto Veep in the interim) but we shudder to imagine how much grimmer and more cynical it might have been if it had been written and produced later in 2016, which can quite mildly be called the point where things started getting more divisive from a geopolitical point of view.
Instead, The Death Of Stalin only looks timelier a few years after its release, as it presents a witty, quotable, and often terrifying picture of the destructive negligence that occurs because of the weakness of powerful men. When it came to cinemas in 2017, the film was duly declared “an unfriendly act by the British intellectual class” in the Russian media, but we suspect there might have been stronger terms from both the filmmakers and their detractors had the film come together even a few months later.
The Personal History Of David Copperfield (2019)
“Whether I turn out to be the hero of my own story or whether that station will be held by anybody else these moments must show.”
With that said, The Personal History Of David Copperfield is almost the opposite of what you’d expect from an Armando Iannucci film in 2020, and that’s all for the best. You wouldn’t expect one of our foremost satirists to be bringing us a bit of much-needed relief from this year’s news cycle, but as it turns out, this PG-certified adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel is the ideal next step for the director.
At the time of the film’s release in UK cinemas, (conspicuously close to the date the UK left the European Union to indulge in an uncertain and still ongoing transition period) Iannucci told Screen Daily: “It so easy in the current debate to portray Britain as isolationist, exclusive, narrow-minded, and that’s not Britain is. So this is really a celebration of what I feel Britain is, which has to do with its creativity and scale and ambition and variety.”
The result is quite unlike anything he has made before on either the big or small screen, but still, there’s another enviable ensemble, this time led by Dev Patel as the title character. Like Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, the film positions the protagonist as both author and narrator of his own life, as he meets an assortment of characters such as Mr Micawber, (Capaldi again) Aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) and her lodger Mr Dick, (Hugh Laurie) and the social-climbing Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw).
It’s one of those films where you already think everyone in the cast is brilliant, but on top of that, they’re all brilliant in it. Capaldi and Laurie are especially good as characters who are considerably softer around the edges than we’ve grown used to seeing them play and the deliberately episodic nature of the plot allows plenty of time for everyone to shine, including Daisy May Cooper, Paul Whitehouse, Benedict Wong, and Darren Boyd. There’s also a terrific dual role for one cast member that you might only fully appreciate on repeat viewings.
If there are still any naysayers about Patel as the leading man, his superb performance banishes them like so many unwanted donkeys from Aunt Betsey’s lawn. Fronting the funniest Dickens adaptation since The Muppet Christmas Carol, he’s immensely charismatic and endearing as David races from one chapter of his life to the next. He gives Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell’s script the room to be a bit more episodic, all the better for the last half-hour to bring the job of uniting more and more of the wonderful cast in increasingly smaller rooms.
The Personal History Of David Copperfield is not only Iannucci’s best film to date but one of the best films of this year full stop. Putting all leaps in visual style and storytelling aside, it’s not that optimism is in any way wiser or more valid than cynicism, but it’s a joy to see the director nail the former as vividly as he has the latter over many more of his works.
The film preserves the novel’s loose structure, but also its old-fashioned notion of community overcoming unfeeling capitalist forces. That’s not antithetical to anything in his previous scripts, in which people are usually out for themselves at great cost to others, to posit that we’re better off together. To see him approach it from the opposite angle may not be what we expect from an Armando Iannucci film, this year of all years, but it’s truly what we needed at this point.
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