The Death of Stalin

Posted by Laurence Green

Laurence Green reviews Armando Iannucci's coruscatingly funny and surprisingly topical new film, The Death of Stalin.

The Death of Stalin

Do some topics lie beyond the remit of comedy? Stalin was responsible for killing millions of people, so should despots like him ever be the subject of comedy? Mel Brooks thought they should when he played a rapping Hitler in To Be or Not to Be in 1983, Now Armando Iannucci has taken up the mantle in his dark and riotous satire centring on Russia’s last great tyrant in The Death of Stalin.

Opening on the night of the Russian leader’s demise, it tells the story of the power grab that pitched Central Committee members against each other and was resolved, after much bloodshed and loss of life, shortly after Stalin’s funeral.

Based on the graphic novel by French writer Fabien Nury Iannucci’s script – with contributions from regular collaborators Ian Martin and David Schneider – is brimful of acerbic, politically incorrect conversations with subtexts that are obviously yet shockingly relevant to current times. Iannucci’s trademark flair for fashioning hilarious secondary, almost incidental, dialogue to build up serious belly laughs is well deployed here. One of the most memorable scenes comes early on when the conniving, torture-loving interior minister Lavrenti Beria (superbly played by Simon Russell Beale) jokingly plants a ripe tomato in Nikita Khrushchev’s (an excellent Steve Buscemi) trouser pocket at a dinner with their leader and this is intercut with a sequence featuring victims –civil servants, doctors, ordinary workers – of Stalin’s purge being rounded up for imprisonment or summary execution. It’s this contrast between comedy and genuine horror that makes the movie so effective a satire.

I was also particularly amused when Stalin’s grown-up daughter Svetlana (a convincing Andrea Riseborough) demands that Moscow’s best doctors be immediately drafted to try and receive her father after he suffers a stroke and then a fatal heart attack are met with Beria’s rueful observation that on Stalin’s earliest orders, they’ve all been eliminated.

Apart from those already mentioned other standout performances in a starry cast are Adrian McLoughlin as Stalin himself, well aware of his hold over both a vast, impoverished empire and a collection of fawning courtiers jockeying for his favour. Rupert Friend as Vasily Stalin, the leader’s inebriated son and a political embarrassment, Jeffrey Tambor as Stalin’s official deputy, Georgy Malenkov, providing a masterclass in humiliated dithering, not to mention Michael Falin as Committee member Molotov and Jason Isaacs as armed forces minister Georgy Zhukov, a man with an over-inflated ego.

But the movie belongs to Russell Beale Who reminds us throughout this coruscatingly funny film exactly what the human face of terror looks like as Beria, a bland, boorish and heartless man driven by personal greed and petty jealousies – much like his former boss.

The Death of Stalin 

Released nationwide on 20 October 2017

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