Review- The Death of Stalin (2017)

by Old King Clancy

With The Thick Of It and it’s cinematic partner, In The Loop, covering UK politics, and Veep covering the US, it can be argued that nobody has a better, or funnier, grasp on the ineptitude of politicians than Armando Iannucci. Now with his latest film, The Death Of Stalin, Iannucci tackles historical Russian politics to show that no matter where or when, politicians were and are idiots!

Loosely based on the true story of the Russian governments reaction to the death of Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), the film finds the Russian cabinet – Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), First Secretary Nikita Kruschev (Steve Buschemi), head of secret police Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and Deputy Premier Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) – coming together to help guide the country through a period of mourning. Nikita sees the opportunity to ease up on Stalin’s torturous rule and induct a more liberal approach to the Russian Government, however, Beria starts mobilizing his Police Force to manipulate Malenkov into giving him more power, and seizing the chair for himself.

Knowing that he has to contend with Beria, the rest of the party, a funeral and Stalin’s own children, including alcoholic child Vasily (Rupert Friend) and too-smart-for-her-own-good Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough). Nikita starts mobilizing his own counter-measures to unite the party and General Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) of the Soviet Army against Beria before it’s too late with only his wits and the idiocy of his fellow politicians to pull him through.

Obviously, this is all history so anyone that knows they’re Russian politics will already know what’s happening, but Iannucci probably realizes that most Western audiences don’t and presents it as such. There’s enough set-up to know the general idea of what’s going on, Nikita is the closest thing we have to a hero, while Beria is unquestionable the villain. Everyone else is stuck in the middle of the civil war between them, but it’s the absurd escalation of that civil war that drives the story forward. Leading you to understanding just how bad Russia was following Stalin’s death and the power vacuum it created.

The character work was fun in this fil with the main cast embracing the ridiculousness fiof it all. The supporting cast were also fun in their smaller roles with Paddy Considine, as a radio producer, trying desperately to please Stalin and Olga Kurylenko, as pianist Maria Yudina, with a bone to pick with Stalin both being the standouts in the film’s opening.

Friend and Risborough don’t have a great deal to do with the film, but their presence is felt. Friend presents Vasily as a drunken man-child with too many responsibilities and not a care for a single one, for the most part he’s kept out of the way, but always manages to worm his way into places he shouldn’t be. Svetlana is definitely the sensible child and at times feels like the heart of the film, the only person actually looking out for someone other than themselves. Due to her being Stalin’s daughter, she has an important part to play leading to both Nikita and Beria trying to curry favor with her, neither realizing just how quickly she’s able to see through their plans.

The cabinet itself is filled with strange and oddball creatures, Molotov is an over-the-hill old hat who knows something needs to be done, but often too scared to do anything. Zhukov comes late in the game, but makes a big impression as a hard-ass General with a love of hitting people and making no bones as to why. And Tambor takes a big role as Malenkov, Stalin’s deputy suddenly thrust into power with little idea of what to do with it. Tambor balances the line between idiot and out-of-his depth well and you can understand why he’s often flustered and scared without thinking that he’s too stupid to lead. His desire to keep the committee together and to help him lead has Malenkov working with all sides and spreading himself too thin.  This allows Beria to take advantage of him.

Speaking of which, Beria could take the year’s ‘Best Villain’ role by being a disgusting and manipulative son-of-a-bitch. It’s difficult to know where to start with this guy, his constant secret keeping and tabs on everyone around him to use their dirtiest tricks against them. His scheming and bold-faced lies to keep everyone on his side and out-maneuver his enemies, or his penchant for having his prisoners killed or raping their wives in exchange for their release, then killing them and their wife. He’s a rotten piece of shit and Beale plays him so slimy, so despicable, that you can’t help but hate the guy everytime he’s onscreen. But at the same time captivated by what deplorable act he’ll pull next, he’s absolutely the best villain so far of 2017, and it’s terrifying to think this was a real person behind the laughter.

Finally there’s Nikita, the closest thing this film gets to a straight man, at times he can be just as buffoonish as his comrades, but for the most part it’s Nikita that’s trying to steer them towards reforming the party policies. Steve Buschemi doesn’t get as many laughs, but his reactions to the people around him are always fun and his attempts to outwit Beria don’t always go to plan, forcing him to improvise. 

Naturally, Iannucci captures the insanity of politics as well as he did in The Thick Of It and Veep with the historical setting adding an extra layer. Being one of those people who never read their Russian history, I can’t say how accurate it is to reality, but there’s something very strange about an entire country mourning a dictator who jailed, exiled, or killed anyone who disagreed with him. In a way, it’s kind of refreshing to recognize that politicians have always been stupid and greedy and Iannucci plays that up here. The state is in limbo and nobody has any clue what’s going on leading to some very funny moments as they try to figure it all out. This could range from something as simple as Zhukov teasing Nikita about ratting him out or one of the more elaborate scenes when the entire party has to move Stalin’s body to his bedroom to give him a more dignified end while trying to avoid a puddle of piss. While it lacks the poetic cursing of Malcolm Tucker or the recognizable idiocy of Selena Meyer’s cabinet, this is a comedic piece of history that just has Iannucci’s prints all over it.

Surprisingly though, this film gets really dark at times, this being a harsh period of history with endless amounts of torture, rapes, and murders committed by the police force against the people – thankfully most of it only implied. The film has this great juxtaposition of laughing at the politicians only to be reminded of the people their actions affect and the impoverished, near genocidal conditions that the Russian population has to contend with under Stalin’s rule. It’s something that’s never really been brought up before in Iannucci’s work, how these idiots in government are responsible for the lives of millions of people, but in a way using this period of history is the best chance to allow Iannucci to bring that aspect to the front. Russia was committing these atrocities against its own people and a great majority of the film is the committee trying to agree on whether to freeze the arrests or continue in Stalin’s name. There’s a blasé attitude to the whole thing that just makes you feel even stranger once you’ve realized what you’ve been laughing at.

For anyone that’s enjoyed Iannucci’s previous works then The Death Of Stalin follows a similar vein of political mayhem and a general dislike of everyone in it. The historical setting allows him to take much darker roads than you might expect, but all in the name of bringing this strange, sad period of time to light. Anchored by a cast all game for the ridiculousness, with Beale’s Beria being the standout for just how twisted a character he really is, this deserves to be remembered as the funniest genocide film of 2017!

I am giving The Dead of Stalin a 4 out of 5 Hairpieces!

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