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The Death of Stalin is a hilarious, and often morbid comedy about the ruthless power struggles that occurred in the wake of Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953.
Writer/director Armando Iannucci, best known for the biting political satire show The Thick of It and its film spin-off In the Loop, takes a stab at satirizing Russian politics of the mid 20th century. The Death of Stalin is just as relentlessly funny as Iannuci’s take on contemporary politics, but with a decisively more cutthroat and mean-spirited streak.
A UK/France co-production, The Death of Stalin’s cast is mostly comprised of British or American actors (with the exception of Olga Kurylenko, who has Ukranian roots), but in a refreshing turn of events, none of them even really try to do Russian accents.
Some might find it bizarre, but it’s a decision that definitely works in the movie’s favor, as the actors get to cut loose in ways that might not have been as effective if they had to maintain Russian accents throughout. It’s more of an evocation of history, exaggerated for comedic purposes, than an authentic account of what happened.
The key figures in the movie’s story are Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), who are both chomping at the bit to seize more power in the wake of Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin)’s death. Khrushchev is the underdog here, constantly being outmaneuvered by the sly, ruthless Beria who has been preparing for this for a long time.
The pair have to contend with the naive and hopelessly inept Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) who has taken over as temporary leader of the Soviet Union, as well as other committee members, military leaders and Stalin’s children Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend).
There are a lot of characters to keep track off and it can get a bit overwhelming at first, especially since many are introduced very quickly – but pretty soon you’ll be up to speed with who’s who and what they’re after.
The Death of Stalin more or less pulls off a balancing act of comedy and bleakness. Death, violence and paranoia permeate the story – sometimes the flippancy with which they are treated is part of the joke and sometimes it’s really not. There are several sequences that have very little, if anything to laugh about and are actually quite morbid and downbeat, from mass shootings to gruesome executions.
Their inclusion fits the movie’s tone and noticeably separates it from the likes of something like In the Loop. Your mileage may vary and some might find it to be a case of mood whiplash, but it feels like the right call here.
When it does go for comedy, The Death of Stalin is absolutely hilarious. An early sequence has Stalin request a recording of a concert that was broadcast on the radio. Since the concert wasn’t actually recorded, the organizers desperately stage a repeat performance, even bringing in people from the street to make sure the crowd is large enough.
Not only is the whole bit comedy gold, it sets the mood by showing just how utterly paranoid everyone was with Stalin in charge. Buscemi’s Khrushchev has his wife record everything he tells Stalin in a notebook and then repeat to him in the morning, so that he knows which jokes made the dictator laugh and which topics he should avoid.
When Stalin suffers a massive stroke, the committee is faced with a difficult dilemma – they want to get a doctor, but all of Russia’s best doctors are either dead or in gulags. Do they risk incurring the wrath of Stalin by getting a bad doctor to treat him? Khrushchev wisely points out that if the doctor saves Stalin, then obviously they are a good doctor and if they don’t, it doesn’t really matter.
Pretty much everyone in the cast takes turns stealing the spotlight. My personal favorite was Jason Isaacs as the gruff, no nonsense general Georgy Zhukov, but Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor and Rupert Friend are also incredible in pretty much all of their scenes.
The Death of Stalin offers razor sharp satire and a treasure trove of wonderful performances, although your enjoyment may be hindered by the movie’s pervasive bleakness.