UK Release Date: 20th October 2017
Runtime: 104 minutes
Director: Armando Iannucci
Writer: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs, Rupert Friend, Andrea Riseborough, Paul Whitehouse
Synopsis: The sudden death of Joseph Stalin triggers an avalanche of back-stabbing and scheming as the big political beasts of the Kremlin try to fill the power vacuum.
We don’t have a fly on the wall in the world’s corridors of power. Sometimes, though, it feels as if Armando Iannucci might be the next best thing. The writer-director behind The Thick of It and In The Loop on this side of the pond and Veep over in America has been providing us with a glimpse behind the political curtain for years. Now, he has made the move to the Soviet Union in 1953 with The Death of Stalin, in which the titular dictator’s demise leads to one of the scuffles for power that has always been Iannucci’s trademark.
The film is a sideways step for Iannucci and has a darkness his Westminster stories never possessed. Malcolm Tucker’s ravings are terrifying, but the worst thing they will lead to is a firing, whereas a misplaced word in the company of Stalin or his enforcers is an instant death sentence. This gives The Death of Stalin a real feel of danger, but one that often undercuts the farcical giggle fodder that is the director’s bread and butter. The barbs and jibes are there, but they’re delivered with an undercurrent of mortal aggression that makes it difficult to succumb to laughter.
Iannucci begins by establishing the inner circle of followers around Stalin, with clear tension between savvy politician Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and ruthless secret police chief Beria (Simon Russell Beale). When the dictator collapses in his bedroom, pushover deputy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) assumes temporary control while funeral arrangements are made and a successor is decided. It’s a muddle of scheming and political posturing, which is thoroughly shaken up by the arrival of bolshy war hero Zhukov – played by Jason Isaacs, complete with Jim Bowen-esque Northern brogue.
The Death of Stalin earns an off-kilter feel right from its first scenes, thanks largely to the wide variety of accents on offer, from the Brooklyn dialect of Buscemi to Paul Whitehouse as a broad Cockney. The performances are impressive across the board, whether it’s Isaacs having the absolute time of his life and blowing everyone else off the screen with his swaggering masculinity or Simon Russell Beale dialling it back with an intense and sinister, but oddly quiet, turn as the hideously evil Beria. Rupert Friend, meanwhile, steals every single one of his fleeting scenes as Stalin’s sweary, unstable son.
Iannucci has no problem with keeping the story going and the political machinations are punctured with moments of bizarre farce. For every tense committee meeting, there’s a physical comedy highlight, whether it’s a discussion over which body part each person wants to carry or some deeply uncomfortable jockeying for position around a coffin during a supposedly dignified service. The Death of Stalin is at its strongest when it channels the petty micro-politics of The Thick of It, but stumbles slightly when it tries to tackle something bigger, away from the creative insults.
The film simply wilts under the weight of historical significance. Stalin’s regime, and the subsequent power struggle, led to the deaths of thousands. That’s something that sits rather awkwardly with the playground insults and childish squabbles of the standard Iannucci character. In trying to tackle something as huge as this subject, there’s also a messy and incoherent side to the film, as it struggles to cover everything it needs to cover in order to tell the story properly. There’s no Malcolm Tucker here providing an anchor point to lead the audience through the complex web of the story and no single performer capable of being anything close to the same force of nature.
This is in many ways a movie defeated by its own scope. In its attempt to cover all of the bases, we get only fleeting glimpses of crucial female characters and even heavyweight stars like Michael Palin are somewhat underused in the general scheme of things. Certainly some characters are tossed aside when the home stretch of the story becomes clear. That said, there’s an undeniable joy to watching A-list actors grapple with Iannucci’s verbose vitriol on the big screen – especially when they’re doing it with regional accents cribbed from all corners of the British Isles.
Pop or Poop?
Satire supremo Armando Iannucci leaves Westminster and the White House behind to skewer the Soviets in The Death of Stalin, which is an often riotously funny spin on a tumultuous period of European history. Off-kilter performances from an enviable comedy ensemble ensure the audience is never too far from a piercing one-liner or moment of near-slapstick farce.
Unfortunately, though, the material doesn’t lend itself all that well to a pacy, punchy comedy style and the film leaves something to be desired in its treatment of some of the tougher material.
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