Film Review: The Death of Stalin
Directed by: Armando Iannucci
Review by: Belle McIntyre
This sharply satirical political comedy is wickedly funny which should not be surprising since it has been written and directed by the creator of the HBO series “VEEP” and the Iraq war send up “In the Loop.” Iannucci uses deft strokes to create caricatures of known entities which feel close enough to reality for the farcical take on the political shenanigans to really hit home. The time is 1953 and the reign of terror under Stalin’s rule has rendered the whole of Russia into a population of fearful paranoiacs who are constantly looking over their shoulders, trusting no one, and turning on colleagues and family members for fear of recrimination for any random activities.
The opening scene is in a beautiful concert hall where an audience is listening the conclusion of a Mozart symphony. In the sound room backstage a call comes in from Stalin who has been listening to it on the radio and wants a CD of same. The fact that it has not been recorded and it is Stalin who wants it throws Comrade Andryev (Paddy Considine) into a terrified panic. Rather than tell Stalin no as he fears for his safety, he races onstage to try to get the audience to stay while the concert is replayed for the recording. Much slapstick hilarity ensues including forcing an aging conductor out of bed to stand in for the collapsed conductor, bribing the soloist to replay the piano part, and dragging peasants in from the streets to fill up the audience.
The weekly hit lists handed down are received matter-of-factly by the chain of command who dutifully divide them up and goes out to round up the unsuspecting citizens using the roughest, most brutal tactics, and then delivers them to the gleefully sadistic Lavrently Beria (Simon Russell Beale), head of the secret police. Your possibilities with Beria run the gamut of torture-induced confessions or betrayals, banishment to Siberian work camps, or death.
When Kruschev (Steve Buscemi) walks into Stalin’s office and finds him collapsed on the floor barely alive, he is overcome with confusing reactions, fear, relief, hope and cunning, as he sees previously unimagined opportunities. The uncertainty created by the potential power vacuum brings out the unleashed demented behavior of the members of Stalins inner circle, the Central Committee, as they jockey for position, scheme and plot against one another. The ensuing power struggle allows for all of the worst elements of these all-too-human characters corrupted by absolute power, ambition and amorality starting at the top and infecting everyone that it touches as it trickles down. When the source of their power and relative security is gone they reveal their weaknesses and vanities, ambitions and absurdities in pointedly drawn portraits of terrible powerful men as incompetent clowns.
If this does not sound like your idea of funny, let me assure you that it is. Sometimes the salve for awful truths is laughter. Think Mel Brook’s Springtime for Hitler. Iannucci moves the action along with a brisk clip and it is deeply farcical. The cast is uniformly accomplished and the characters are hugely satirical. Steve Buscemi’s Kruschev is actually fairly nuanced in ways that the morose Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and Vyacheslave Molotov (Michael Palin) are not, which actually works. Malenkov’s vanity and lack of self awareness are hysterical as is that of the ferociously militant Field Marshall Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs). The drunken, deadbeat and unhinged son of Stalin, Vasily is played by a ranting Rupert Friend to a fare thee well, aided by his overprotective, but equally clueless, wigged-out sister Svetlana (Andrea Reisborough). Sets and costumes are all very authentic looking and the production is polished and handsome. It is meant to be a comedy and it totally succeeds. I thought it was great.