Review: The Death of Stalin (2017)

The Death of Stalin is a satirical masterpiece.

Anybody who discusses satire in audio-visual media at some point must mention the work of Armando Iannucci. Creator of TV’s The Thick Of It and Veep, with credits that include The Day Today and Alan Partridge, his work is some of the finest in Comedy. And in 2009, Iannucci made his big screen full feature directorial debut with The Thick Of It spin-off In The Loop (one of the best comedies of our times) and now, Iannucci casts his eye to even darker – and even more volatile – political territory with The Death of Stalin.

As concepts go, this film has a pitch black core, as it not only delves into a figure whose actions have reverberated throughout socio-political history but in looking at the events surrounding his death in 1953 and the power struggles within the Soviet Union, it is a brazen era, to say the least, in which to set a Comedy. However, not only does this film exceed the high expectations placed upon it and swat away the concerns many may have about making a film of this subject, but The Death of Stalin also creates worryingly relevant moments of uproarious hilarity and soul shaking horror. Based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, The Death of Stalin is the best film I have seen this year and a modern day satirical masterpiece on the level of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

The screenplay by Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows is razor sharp, with direction by Iannucci to match. Taking the disclosed and behind closed doors approach of The Thick Of It and adding a background of torture, tyrannical anxiety and death, the film is a work of incredible depth and power. The scenes chill you one minute, only to create moments of rib-aching hilarity the next and the balance is perfect. Not only does the script delve into this era of mistrust and control with (despite the massive laughs) apt historical accuracy but in doing so it alarmingly reflects aspects of the calamitous contemporary political system. In the scenes of figures stumbling over each other for a sip of power, you get the impression that times, in many ways, have changed very little and that is really rather frightening.

That being said, this serious subject is naturally lampooned, as this cast of real-life figures is presented as a collection of headless power-hungry chickens in a crisis, each panicking for their own safety, which is never guaranteed. The tagline reads “A Comedy of Terrors” and that honestly summarises a film that is chock full of treachery, death and instantly quotable lines of eye watering excellence. Every scene comes with a comic punch that lingers and some moments that leave you enthralled with their precision execution and laughter achieving perfection. This is one hell of a funny film about one hell of a dark topic.

The incredible cast offers us a collaborative effort so wonderful that it is impossible to choose just one favourite performance. The decision to use a variety of accents instead of Russian could have distracted but within a few moments of the film beginning, the decision is validated as a stroke of genius, as it gives each character an extra facet. Simon Russell Beale is arguably the most terrifying of this award worthy bunch as Lavrentiy Beria, head of Stalin’s secret police, and Beale is scarily powerful, bullying and hateably manipulative in the role. While Steve Buscemi as Nikita Krushchev is at his darkly comic and screen captivating best, with a performance that shows just how treasured a talent he is (and should be). Then there is a superb turn by Jeffrey Tambor as Stalin’s anointed – and overwhelmed – successor Georgy Malenkov.

Meanwhile there are a whole host of tremendous supporting performances from Michael Palin (as Vyacheslav Molotov), Andrea Riseborough (as Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Stalina), Dermot Crowley (as Lazar Kaganovich), Paul Chahidi (as Nikolai Bulganin), Paul Whitehouse (as Anastas Mikoyan), Olga Kurylenko (as pianist Maria Yudina), Adrian McCloughlin (as Stalin himself) and Paddy Considine as Comrade Andreyev. However specific praise should go to Rupert Friend as Stalin’s son Vasily, who evokes Kenneth Mars’ mad turn in Mel Brooks’ seminal The Producers. As well as Jason Isaacs, who is scene stealingly braggadocios as Georgy Zhukov, the only character unafraid of being killed because of his no nonsense attitude (his Yorkshire accent in the role anchors this point) and feared reputation as a war hero. Every member of this calibre cast get a moment to shine, so much so that this review could sing praises for each and every one endlessly and that is a very remarkable achievement. This ensemble makes us laugh at their characters hapless attempts to orchestrate the political madness into cohesion, while some also make us shiver with their cold merciless actions.

Iannucci has directed a film that looks perfect (the recreation of the period is spot on, as is the patriotic soundtrack) and is written with wit and complexity. The Death of Stalin is a hilarious satirical masterwork and one that leaves you thinking of not only this dark and uncertain time in human history but the uncertain one which we are currently part of. See it as soon as you can because – like In The Loop – it is a Comedy of the highest rank.


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