The Death of Stalin (2017)

Moscow 1953: A radio station has just broadcast a live performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23. The Director, Comrade Andreyev (Paddy Considine), receives a call and finds himself speaking to Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), who enjoyed the recital so much he’d like a copy sent over that very evening. Of course Andreyev agrees, because it’s a reasonable enough request and who’s going to say no to Uncle Joe anyway? There’s a problem though – the performance wasn’t recorded.
Andreyev’s frantic solution to the problem is the perfect introduction to the terrifying world of Stalin’s Russia, where ordinary people are forced to farcical lengths in order to appease their leader and save their own skins. Crisis averted, lead pianist and staunchly anti-Stalinist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) sees an opportunity to send an abusive letter to Stalin. Stalin finds the note hilarious, but his laughter is cut short by a brain haemorrhage.
The critically ill leader is attended to by his immediate subordinates, who still try to out-grovel each other even as Stalin is laying stricken in a puddle of his own urine. There’s head of the secret police, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale, amazingly loathsome); Stalin’s Deputy, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor, dour and dim-witted); and the First Secretary of the Moscow Committee, Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi, doing his nervy motor mouthed thing). As Stalin is dying the jockeying for position has begun, as each man smells the opportunity to succeed their much-feared leader. Once Stalin dies, it turns into a full-on power struggle.
Adapted from the French graphic novel, La Mort de Staline, this material is rich pickings for writer and director Armando Ianucci, who has built a fine career mining political landscapes for satire. He’s the man behind Veep and The Thick of It, as well as encapsulating a specific blend of English pettiness, arrogance, ignorance and self-loathing in the character of Alan Partridge. With The Death of Stalin, Ianucci revels in the backstabbing and frantic maneuvering of a gallery of despicable, self-serving sycophants – as well as the people mentioned above we also meet the likes of Michael Palin’s Vyacheslav Molotov, who remains faithful to Stalin even after his wife fell victim to one of the leader’s purges.
There’s an overlap between Palin’s portrayal of Molotov and his character Jack Lint in Brazil, which provides a useful through line to Terry Gilliam’s dystopian nightmare – both films use comedy to accentuate the horrors of a totalitarian regime. Ianucci’s writing is frequently sharp, and the humour always serves the all-encompassing terror of the era – no matter who you are, you’re only one word to the wrong person away from getting disappeared, or worse.
The Death of Stalin is Ianucci’s sophomore film as director, after 2009’s In the Loop. It’s a confidently made film, although clearly Ianucci’s visual ambitions stretch little further than providing a well-arranged space for his performers to work within. Which is fine, because the chief pleasure of this film is watching a terrific ensemble really get stuck into Ianucci’s juicy, frequently profane screenplay.
Ianucci’s most conspicuous directorial decision is one that makes the film. Rather than employing that irritating staple of historical dramas of making a bunch of British and American actors adopt a Russian accent, Ianucci lets his players keep their own, or pick one that suits them. It works so well, letting the dialogue flow naturally while also making the film seem more contemporary and easy to engage with. Buscemi cuts loose with his rat-a-tat Brooklyn accent, McLoughlin gets to play Stalin like a vicious Cockney gangster, and Jason Isaacs (playing Field Marshall Georgy Zhukov) swaggers into the proceedings with a burly Yorkshire accent and steals the whole movie.
Some critics and historians have sniffed at Ianucci’s decision to make The Death of Stalin a comedy, but the humour certainly makes the subject more palatable – a straight historical film about these repellent characters clambering over one another to claim Stalin’s vacated throne might have been a hard watch. Even as it stands, the comedy only just about prevents it from becoming despairing, and the grim ending is unsettling.
Hearing Ianucci speaking about the decision reminds me of Kubrick’s rationale behind making Dr Strangelove a comedy. Kubrick initially intended to make a straight drama about mutually assured destruction, but as he researched he found himself laughing at the increasingly absurd details, and realised the story would be best served as comedy. And like Dr Strangelove, the comedy somehow makes The Death of Stalin more frightening and believable.
The film’s arrival is especially timely, as the current political conversation becomes increasingly fraught and polarized. I doubt it’ll take a huge leap for anyone who shares Ianucci’s point of view to draw parallels with the characters in the movie and the people currently running certain governments in the Western world. While The Death of Stalin doesn’t quite match up to the greats, it still does what all good satire should do – view the world through a very specific lens and cause the audience to reflect on what’s happening around them. In short, it’ll make for a lively post-film debate with a few pints.


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