The Death of Stalin
Updated: Feb 6, 2020
It is 1953 and the Soviet Union is under the communist control of Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin). A radio station is playing a symphony when they receive a phone call. It is from Stalin, who has been listening and is sending soldiers to collect a recording of the live performance. Unfortunately, the performance was not recorded. So the station head, Andreyev (Paddy Considine, co-star of one of the best horror films of 2017, The Girl With All the Gifts), quickly stops people from leaving and even has some from the street brought in to replace the patrons who left so the acoustics sound the same. However, the piano player (Olga Kurylenko) refuses to participate because her family was murdered by Stalin. Andreyev pays her to play and, after the performance, she slips a letter to Stalin in the record sleeve. While reading the letter, Stalin has a brain hemorrhage and collapses on the floor.
Now his cabinet, including Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor, from Arrested Development), Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and Vyacheslav Molotov (Monty Python member Michael Palin), must decide how to proceed with their leader incapacitated. More importantly, they must decide who is in charge.
This story is told in The Death of Stalin which, I should mention right at the top, is a comedy. And a really, really funny comedy at that. It is a smart, and sometimes vicious, satire portraying the small minded selfishness and hypocrisy of the most powerful men in the Soviet Union at that time (and really any country, at any time). Its director is Armando Iannucci, who has displayed his skills as a satirist in the movie In the Loop (for which he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2010) and the HBO series Veep. He is unafraid to tackle serious subject matter in an unexpected, and sometimes absurd, way. This film will likely make you at least a little bit uncomfortable. Even while you are laughing.
One of the reasons that The Death of Stalin (99 minutes without the end credits) is so successful is that its talented cast plays the material completely straight, highlighting the craziness. Steve Buscemi is hilarious and oddly sympathetic as Nikita Khrushschev. He wants to enact reform, but in order to do that, he needs to assume control. And he will do what he must to obtain it. His chief rival is Lavrenti Beria, played by Simon Russell Beale as a crafty maneuverer who knows how to move the pieces where he needs them. He is probably the smartest man in the room, but that may not be to his advantage. Jeffrey Tambor is his typical ineffectual bumbler as Malenkov. It works perfectly here, especially since he is the highest ranking member of the group, so the rest need to work through him even though he has no idea what he is doing.
The film is really well structured (it has been adapted from the graphic novel by Fabien Nury). It is focused on just a few days, but those few days perfectly encapsulate the story’s view on the country’s leadership. No prior knowledge of events or people is necessary to understand the story or the satire. It is pretty easy to follow despite all the plotting and manipulating from its main characters.
The Death of Stalin is somewhat reminiscent of Milos Forman’s 1967 satire on communism, The Fireman’s Ball. Forman’s film is a little more subtle and has a wider target, but Ianucci’s film is similar in the delicate balance of the serious and the farcical. They both tackle governmental corruption and hypocrisy in a way that is very funny and thought-provoking.
Armando Ianucci has made an incisive satire that is hilarious, entertaining and has something to say. He is helped immensely by a great cast (also including Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend as Stalin’s children and Jason Isaacs in a small but very funny turn as Field Marshal Zhukov) and successfully keeps his tone under control. The result is one of the best films of 2018, thus far.
4½ out of 5
Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev
Simon Russell Beale as Lavrenti Beria
Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov
Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov
Adrian McLoughlin as Josef Stalin
Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana
Rupert Friend as Vasily
Olga Kurylenko as Maria Veniaminovna Yudina
Jason Isaacs as Field Marshal Zhukov
Paddy Considine as Andreyev
Directed by Armando Iannucci
Written by Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows