Review: ‘Stalin’

An ambitious vidbio pegged at $ 10 million stretches from 1917 to 1973, but the attempt to understand the Georgian despot through Paul Monash's teleplay fails. Played valiantly by Robert Duvall wearing brown contact lenses and makeup looking like papier-mache, this Josef Stalin raises few passions; the tyrant remains elusive.

An ambitious vidbio pegged at $ 10 million stretches from 1917 to 1973, but the attempt to understand the Georgian despot through Paul Monash’s teleplay fails. Played valiantly by Robert Duvall wearing brown contact lenses and makeup looking like papier-mache, this Josef Stalin raises few passions; the tyrant remains elusive.

“Stalin” deals not so much with historical results as with more intimate matters–Stalin craftily making his way up the political ladder, dealing coldly with his two sons, softening over wife Nadya and daughter Svetlana, observing a ballerina as the “Dying Swan”– with these the vidpic hints at the human being inside.

Telefilm, directed impressively by Ivan Passer, goes all out with location work, using many of the actual sites where events took place– Stalin’s dacha, his offices at the Ministry of Defense, Kremlin areas and Lenin’s own apartment, just for starters. But scenic authenticity is no substitute for dramatic or historical clarity.

Vidpic concentrates on his ruthlessness, his manipulations, his disregard for friendship.

Thanks to Passer’s touch and to Duvall’s sly, telling eyework, Stalin marks everything and everyone around him. As a shocking acknowledgement of his power and treachery, “Stalin” follows the assassination of Kirov (Kevin McNally), which becomes almost a cottage industry. Assignments, accusations, shootings all fall into place in Monash’s recitation of Stalin’s methods; well over 20 million Soviets die thanks to Stalin’s decisions.

Telepic, narrated by his daughter Svetlana (Joanna Roth), cunningly integrates contemporary

film with vintage footage, using Stanislas Syrewicz’s generous score as a bridge.

Filmed in bold colors by Vilmos Zsigmond, “Stalin” moves forward vigorously, if at times confusedly, since IDs are difficult.

Those unfamiliar with Soviet historical figures will be floored; others, recalling the real-life Molotov, Beria and Khrushchev, will wonder about those fellows.

Duvall, looking confined because of the makeup, plays through the character to convey essences by using shrewd body language.

Julia Ormond glows as Nadya and Maximilian Schell is uncannily exact as Lenin. McNally’s Kirov, Daniel Massey’s Trotsky, Jim Carter and Stella Gonet as Sergo and wife Zina, Aleksander Feklistov’s Nicolayev, are noteworthy.

Screened theatrically in Moscow, vidpic reportedly stirred up controversy and partisanship. How much American TV watchers will find to stir them up is another question; as with Russia itself, Stalin remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

Stalin

(Sat. (21), 8-11 p.m., HBO)

Production

Filmed for HBO Pictures in Moscow and Budapest by Mark Carliner Prods. in association with Hungarian TV-Channel 1. Producer, Mark Carliner; co-producers, Ilene Kahn, Pal Sandor (Budapest); director, Ivan Passer; writer, Paul Monash.

Crew

Camera, Vilmos Zsigmond; editor, Peter Davies; art directors, Alistair Kay, Vladimir Murzin (Moscow); sound, Drew Kunin; music, Stanislas Syrewicz; production designer, Keith Wilson.

Cast

Cast: Robert Duvall, Julia Ormond, Maximilian Schell, Jeroen Krabbe, Joan Plowright, Frank Finlay, Roshan Seth, Daniel Massey, Andras Balint, John Bowe, Jim Carter, Murray Ewan, Stella Gonet, Ravil Isyanov, Colin Jeavons, Miriam Margolyes, Kevin McNally, Clive Merrison, Lisa Orgolini, Joanna Roth, Emil Wolk, Levani Uchaneischvili, Matayas Usztics, Oleg Tobakov, Aleksander Feklistov, Vladimir Gorushin, Olga Anokhina, Gulya Isyanov, Dora Dezseri, Robert Szilvasi, Adam Kahn, Natalia Kislitsina, Tatyana Kuznetsova, Vsevolod Larionov, Eugene Lazarev, Nikolai Lazarev, Anatoly Mashinov, Grigory Firsov, Alexander Orlov, Trina Lazereva, Lev Prygunov, Gene Ruby, Elena Siropova, Stanislav Strelkov, Yuri Vorobiev, Vadim Zagialov, Mikhail Kalinkin, Zoltan Ratoti, Gyorgy Gati, Svetlana Tsoy.
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