Andrea Riseborough is having a bit of a moment. Of course she’s not exactly a newcomer to success or critical acclaim. Still, the almost simultaneous releases of The Death of Stalin and Battle of the Sexes have thrust her under a fresh spotlight. And it’s certainly well-deserved.
Given previous parts she’s chosen to play, it’s probably no coincidence that Riseborough stars in Battle of the Sexes, a film that directly engages with gender equality debates. Despite being celebrated (again, deservedly) for her versatility, she’s often played competent, no-nonsense women who provide an egoless foil to arrogant, show-boating men (see Mindhorn, for example). It’s exactly this quality that makes her performance in Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin so gratifying.
Merits aside, the film is in many ways a gratuitous showreel for a group of white male actors whose careers hardly needed the boost. It’s yet another example of Hollywood continuing to venerate established aging male actors by casting them in leading roles into their 60s and even, in the case of Jeffrey Tambor, their 70s, all the while neglecting female stars of the same age. But that’s a story for another article.
The joy of Riseborough’s Death of Stalin performance derives from the fact that as both actor and character, her presence offers a welcome reprieve from masculine ego and idiocy. Yes, the film is a satire and its central premise is to make us laugh at the men for their hysterical incompetence. But what feminist doesn’t enjoy watching a woman hold her own against a cavalcade of self-serving imbeciles? It’s not just me, is it?
Stalin’s daughter Svetlana displays exponentially more wit, acuity, and plain common sense than any of her father’s inner circle. And by playing her, Riseborough saves The Death of Stalin from being a total sausage fest, and fights through the fug of testosterone to make another lasting impression.
With the deceased in the film being – let’s just say, a tad short of sympathetic – and his underlings too buffoonish and manipulative to draw any audience sympathy, it’s Svetlana who’s left to give The Death of Stalin something vaguely akin to an emotional heart. She’s treated as a pawn by the fickle, self-serving politicians, and this makes her the film’s most likely recipient of empathy. In a way, she’s also the voice of the audience, expressing an incredulity towards the disarray around her that mirrors our ironic amusement at the same scenarios: “I may as well just shoot myself like mother”.
So is she just a straight, sympathetic character among all the larger-than-life comedic ones? No. Thanks to her flawless deadpan delivery, Riseborough is able to grab onto the paltry lines the screenplay gives her and spin them into comedic gold. She can also achieve this with her face alone – see 2:08 in the trailer above. Yet her most scene-stealing moment comes early in the film, when Stalin’s committee assemble the Soviet Union’s best – well, surviving – doctors in an attempt to revive the fallen leader. Svetlana’s response to this motley crew is both a satisfying display of authority and side-splittingly funny. For me, the mere memory of it overshadowed subsequent scenes and gave me a recurring case of uncontrollable giggles.
Riseborough’s performance in The Death of Stalin is hugely enjoyable. Unlike the actors playing subjects of satire she’s able to mine Iannucci’s script for sensitivity and nuance, and then use these writerly nuggets to build a character who’s more than the sum of her parts. The subversive thrill that this creates is undermined, however, by the submissiveness with which the script has Svetlana succumb to the committee’s plan for her in the final act. All she can do is timidly slink toward the waiting car, and the fate doled out to her by powerful men. Historical accuracy and cultural likelihood be damned, let us see Riseborough at the top of her game in every scene! Still, her performance here is just as important for the issues it raises about women in film and in comedy as it is for the laughter and admiration it provokes. I couldn’t be more pleased that during this extremely male-dominated film, it wasn’t a man who made me laugh the hardest.