Review: The Death of Stalin

by Andrew Parker

An exceptionally funny and subtly experimental work of snark, cynicism, and sarcasm, director and co-writer Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin somehow finds a way to make the pain and suffering of millions of people into something worth uneasily laughing at. If time and tragedy together equals comedy, then Iannucci’s pointed, modernist, and revisionist history lesson is the work of a satirist at the top of their form. Slotting into Iannucci’s filmography with even more side-eye and cutting barbs than his television efforts The Thick of It, Veep, and anything involving Alan Partridge, The Death of Stalin might confuse and infuriate some viewers, but for those attuned to his particular brand of artistic beats and insights, it’s like being trapped in the cattiest candy shop known on Earth.

Although The Death of Stalin features a cast of predominantly well known Anglophone actors, Iannucci’s latest takes a look at the power vacuum that formed following the illness and death of Russian leader Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) in 1953. First establishing Stalin as an irredeemable asshole with contempt for the Russian populace and everyone around him, The Death of Stalin quickly looks at the kinds of boot licking toadies that will shortly be tripping over each other to establish dominance over the Communist regime. While the members of the country’s leadership committee bicker, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is the softly defined, ineffective interim leader, but everyone else thinks they’re better equipped for the job, especially the perpetually apoplectic and frequently passed over Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Secret Police leader Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale). While no one knows quite what to do, they all have to tolerate the arrival of Stalin’s generally well meaning daughter (Andrea Riseborough, who fortunately or unfortunately gets the only likable character in the film), the former leader’s drunken, doofus son (Rupert Friend), and a very angry Red Army leader (Jason Isaacs) who feels like his troops have become powerless.

What’s amazing about Iannucci’s film is the director’s commitment to some semblance of historical accuracy. Many of the events depicted in The Death of Stalin actually occurred, maybe not with moment to moment accuracy, but with a certain degree of fidelity being paid by Iannucci and his staff of co-writers. None of the actors appear to be Russian in any way, and no silly accents are being attempted, but there’s an almost charming commitment to authenticity that Iannucci embraces here. It could have been a horrible decision, but the gamble pays off, despite some clearly cheap looking sets that don’t match the grandiosity of the figurehead at the story’s black heart.

Anyone familiar with Iannucci’s work knows he’s the master of the put down. He has written verbal jabs that cut like samurai swords with the kind of wordplay that only Aaron Sorkin could match, and the kind of unapologetic misanthropy that would make Ben Wheatley nod approvingly. Yes, the dialogue being spoken throughout The Death of Stalin is somewhat anachronistic, but the historical accuracy of the events is always kept in mind. When one subtracts pop-culture fuelled cuteness from the equation, Iannucci’s brand of comedy is boiled down to its nastiest, and potentially most satisfying. Stalin was – on the whole – a terrible human being, and it takes a lot of effort to make those equally unlikable chaps vying for his post into comedic figureheads. At no point did I forget that this regime was responsible for ruining millions of lives, but that only makes Iannucci’s perception of their shared ineptitude even funnier.

Such delicate writing extends to characters that all feel vastly different from each other instead of parts of Stalin’s hivemind. Iannucci has cast The Death of Stalin with actors that have each been chosen for their particular skills with wordplay, facial expressions, physical comedy, or their potentially imposing nature. Buscemi, in one of his best performances, shines brightest as a hard working cog that’s sick of getting passed over. Beale is memorable because he turns his spy and hit squad leader into something akin to a powerful frat boy. Friend and Isaacs steal all of their scenes late in the film as a whiny, entitled brat and a threatening, overcompensating tough-guy, respectively. Just as much thought has been put into the casting choices in The Death of Stalin as there was into the overall history of the events being portrayed.

I’m sure there are many who will be unwilling or unable to grasp the joke behind The Death of Stalin, which should go without saying stands as a keen counterpoint and companion piece to the Trump administration. It’s a difficult movie to meet halfway, and the jarring sight of such recognizable faces as Russian leaders takes no small amount of getting used to (although it’s easier to believe than something like Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie). But for fans of Iannucci’s cutting wit and anyone in the mood for something unusual and dark, The Death of Stalin is a qualified comedic success.

The Death of Stalin opens at Varsity Cinemas in Toronto on Friday, March 16, 2018. It expands to other Canadian cities in the coming weeks.

Check out the trailer for The Death of Stalin:

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