Directed by: Armando Iannucci
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs, Paddy Considine, Adrian McLoughlan, Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend
Release Date: Out Now
As far as comedic subject matter goes, it’s harder to get less funny than the power vacuum in the wake of Joseph Stalin’s death in communist Russia. A miserable era of depression, repression and politicking does not especially lend itself to humour.
This is probably why The Death of Stalin is so notably hilarious. A madcap interpretation of a deadly power struggle seems ill fitting, but it works, and incredibly well at that.
In Moscow, 1953, Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlan) suffers a brain haemorrhage, and lays unconscious on the floor of his residence until his discovery in the morning. His cabinet is immediately called to come up with a course of action, with the scheming chief of the secret police, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) arriving first, already making plans to usurp power. Following shortly behind are Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenov (Jeffrey Tambor), and the rest of the cabinet.
They play up a loyalist façade, making a show to voice concern about the possibility that Stalin may not pull through, and what they can do to aid him considering they have imprisoned or killed the country’s top doctors (“What if, we get a bad doctor?”).
Everyone is anxious to varying degrees, well aware that the others will be vying for the newly open spot at the top of the food chain. It’s a unique atmosphere, somewhat bumbling and ineffectual due to thin veneer of mourning, but still slightly unsettling, as this film never lets you forget that these people are, at best, complicit in hundreds of thousands of murders.
This kind of juxtaposition is what carries The Death of Stalin. Dangerous power plays are framed by awkwardness (a hushed conversation about loyalty and treason is covered up with the sounds of a toilet flushing due to fears of surveillance). Dark topics are accompanied by one-liners, ranging from withering to mocking in tone.
An early scene has a concert director falling to pieces trying to re-create a symphony after Stalin requests a recording, desperately trying not to disappoint the ruthless dictator.
Most crucially, the story of these dangerous, ostensibly evil Russian men conspiring for and against each other is told by (mostly) western performers using their natural inflections. Quite simply, the sharp wit of Arnando Iannucci’s film would not be displayed half as well if the leading players were to mimic a Russian accent.
If that were the case, we would have missed out on Jeffrey Tambor telling the assembled cabinet to “kiss my Russian ass” in his distinctive twang, and that would have been a crying shame.
So much credit has to go to the actors here. Every single character gets strong material to work with, and they all impress. Tambor is the standout as Malenov, ostensibly Stalin’s protégé and right hand man, but in reality, a feeble imitation of the terror whose role he steps into. He has moments of determination, but for the most part he is dominated, pulled in different directions by Khrushchev and his supposed friend Beria.
Simon Russell Beale is similarly fantastic as the conniving Beria, a true villain in a cast full of them. We only get a small hint of the atrocities he committed in real life, but it’s more than enough to amply demonstrate the kind of man he is.
Buscemi, meanwhile, is great as Khrushchev. Frustrated and a half step behind Beria for most of the film, he gets to deliver some of the film’s most subtle laughs, as well as some of the best one liners. From the supporting cast, Jason Issacs is excellent as the brazen, bombastic General Georgy Zhukov. He steals every scene he’s in with his bold confidence and remarks (“I took Germany; I think I can take a flesh lump in a waistcoat”).
Rupert Friend is likewise effective as the drunk and slightly unhinged Vasily Stalin, son of the late despot. With most other characters ranging from immoral to evil, he is a breath of fresh air as the ridiculous, not quite all there burden to those around him. His arrival at Stalin’s autopsy is a highlight for the film as a whole.
As mentioned, the writing is snappy and gives everyone an opportunity to shine. The art direction is similarly top notch. The atmosphere is spot on, with costumes and architecture both immaculate, a perfect snapshot of that oppressive period of history. With the quality of the wit on display it’s easy to forget that this is also a period piece, and a well-represented one at that.
In addition, the camerawork is strong, and the editing is paced just right for the humour to hit its mark.
Humour isn’t the only thing film does correctly, however. Certain beats throughout are solemn when necessary, as if reality is ensuing to remind you that no, this situation isn’t all that funny. Indeed, towards the end of the film there is a tonal shift, and realisation sinks in that nobody is a hero in this story. This doesn’t seem shoehorned in from a different film, though. This contrast between bumbling absurdity and the occasional grim seriousness throws the events of the film into perfect relief, providing the grounding to really appreciate how strong the satire on display is.
There are some minor niggles here and there, such as the actual intricacies of the various plotting being vague at times, and it feels like a missed opportunity that more parallels weren’t drawn to the current political climate.
In the grand scheme of things, however, these are very trivial gripes.
At face value, a comedy focused upon the aftermath of the death of a fear dictator using a cast with inconsistent accents sounds like quite an out there concept. As it turns out, Iannucci knew exactly what he was doing with his vision for this film, and as a result has crafted one of the best, most pointed comedies in years.
It is without a doubt worth your time in viewing.
Written by Will Whitty