Film review: The Death of Stalin

19 October 2017

Saga's film critic David Gritten enjoys the brilliantly acted new comedy The Death of Stalin.



You have to hand it to Armando Iannucci. Given all the subjects from which one could possibly fashion an outrageously funny satire, the demise of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin would rank high on few people’s lists. Yet Iannucci, the brilliantly gifted satirist who gave us The Thick of It, Veep and In the Loop, is not easily deterred. He has fashioned dark, madcap comedy from real-life events that were brutal and horrific, though rooted in greed and sheer stupidity.

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Watching The Death of Stalin, I was reminded at various points of the Marx Brothers, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen – which is setting the bar very high indeed.

The premise of the film is that on Stalin’s demise, his key advisers and political colleagues, while proclaiming their grief at the loss of their leader, shamelessly (and ineptly) jockey for prominent positions in the new post-Stalinist government, clearly not giving a second’s thought to the welfare of the Russian people – nor for their recently deceased leader.

It’s clear from the outset why that should be: Stalin keeps his subjects in the grip of fear. Shortly before his death, the old dictator places a call to Radio Moscow to praise them for broadcasting an orchestral concert he has just heard on the station. He then requests a recording of the performance, which forces everyone concerned to repeat the entire recital. This makes for a very funny opening sequence, though it’s obvious that being unable to meet a ‘request’ from Stalin would mean awful trouble and personal danger.

Iannucci has assembled a brilliant cast, well equipped to portray both the absurdity of Stalin’s final hours, and the demeaning power struggle between his potential successors, all of them too terrified to make any decision unless it’s unanimously agreed.

Steve Buscemi plays Nikita Khrushchev as a man with a mobster’s manner and mentality.  The splendid Jeffrey Tambor is Malenkov, portrayed as a feeble-minded bore who initially takes over as Communist Party leader – a position he clearly will not hold for long. The role of the sinister secret police chief Beria goes to Simon Russell Beale, who plays his nastiness to the hilt. Michael Palin has a nice turn as Molotov, desperate not to mouth disloyal opinions of his own for fear of repercussions. And then, there’s a late arrival in the shape of the Red Army’s commander Georgy Zhukov, his chest covered with medals. He is played by Jason Isaacs, who comes close to stealing the show, speaking in a gruff Yorkshire accent, sounding like some aggrieved football manager on Match of the Day. Isaacs is utterly priceless here.

Iannucci based his film on the comic book of the same name by Fabien Nury. It may seem strange material for a film released in 2017. These events (or something like them) occurred 64 years ago, and apart from Khrushchev and Stalin himself, the names of these people are remembered dimly at best. It’s also fair to say that strict historical accuracy is not high on Iannucci’s agenda. (Presumably, it would have ruined several first-class jokes.)

Yet there’s a universality at the story’s heart; we’re familiar enough with the idea of inept, weak-minded politicians who proclaim their desire to do good for ordinary people, but only have their own interests and ambitions at heart. Indeed, audiences might find modern day parallels in this film, far closer to home than Moscow.

Please note: some profanity is used in the dialogue.
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