The Death of Stalin – film review by Calum Maclean
Directed by Armando Ianucci
Screenplay by Armando Ianucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows
Based on The Death Of Stalin by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin
Cast – Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Paul Whitehouse, Adrian Mcloughlin, Olga Kurylenko, Paddy Considine
Running Time – 107 minutes
Based upon a French graphic novel, and helmed by the creative team behind tv’s The Thick of It and Veep, The Death of Stalin is a truly unique comedy/drama. Set in 1953 Moscow, the film opens with a chillingly hilarious example of Stalin’s grip on the Russian people, before focusing upon the dictator’s sudden death and the days of panic, flailing and scheming that followed.
The keys to this film’s success lie in its script and ensemble cast. As any fan of Ianucci’s television work will expect, the dialogue crackles with rapid fire one-upmanship and poetic profanity. However, as was demonstrated in his first film, 2009’s In The Loop, some of the most powerful dialogue comes from realistic fear as the situation becomes ever more hysterical and heightened in the run up to Stalin’s funeral. Also, as was seen in the closing moments of In The Loop, it is the absence of any redeeming morality that underpins the comedy here, with the central characters displaying a callousness and hypocrisy that is both funny and unsettling.
The majority of the story plays out in the relationships between Stalin’s inner circle, portrayed with an eclectic range of accents to reflect the diversity of the Soviet Union. The dark heart of the film is certainly Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s chief of the secret police, played by veteran stage actor Simon Russell Beale. Beale’s performance is one of the most realistic depictions of everyday evil, with Beria’s wide smile contrasted with a dead eyed stare as he cheerfully orchestrates the kill lists and secretly lusts for power. Opposing him is Nikita Kruschev, the savvy politician, played by Steve Buscemi with his native Brooklyn accent, who provides the closest the film has to a sympathetic protagonist, but still conveys a ruthless pragmatism in his own ambitions. The conflict between these two would-be successors threatens to engulf their incompetent colleagues, such as the weak willed Georgy Malenkov and the docile Molotov, played by comedy legends Jeffrey Tambor and Michael Palin, until the introduction of war hero Marshall Zhukov, played as a bullish Yorkshireman by Jason Isaacs, further complicates the farce.
The timeliness of the film’s subject matter cannot be overlooked. While written and filmed prior to the events of last year, Ianucci’s exploration of the cult of personality, the abuse of power, the reliance upon alternative histories and the erasure of facts from the narrative of Stalinist Russia show some troubling similarities to the current political climate. It is this that further elevates The Death of Stalin to tragi-comic satire in the spirit of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, though one without the explicit optimism of that film’s ending.
It should be noted that the marketing of the film has played up the comedic elements to such an extent that the true darkness of the story could come as a jarring surprise to those who might be unfamiliar with a character like Beria. There was a walkout during my screening, and I overheard one saying “I thought this was a comedy.” It is a comedy, but one that walks the line between cynicism and tragedy brilliantly, that acknowledges the historical realities of the time and the figures being depicted, and tells a story of craven ambition and surreal bureaucracy that is terrifyingly more true than you might believe.
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