Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It, Veep)’s bleakly funny film adaptation of Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s French graphic novel “La Mort de Staline” was nominated for two BAFTAs and received four British Independent Film Awards – including Best Supporting Actor for Simon Russell Beale. It has proved popular in Stalin’s native Georgia, and been banned in Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan, so it is a little peculiar the film is only being released in the United States this week, after the Oscars no less. American audiences should expect plenty of laughs, and not just because of its depiction of a government run on fear and incompetence could feel all too familiar.
Despite the title, it takes a surprising while for the titular Great Comrade to actually die. Iannucci spends quite a bit time illustrating how oppressive daily life was in the Soviet Union, focusing on a radio orchestra thrown into a nervous panic when they realize they risk snubbing the dictator. Meanwhile, the Central Committee meet, drink and joke together while casually giving out orders for arrests and executions. The dissonance is jarring, and made all the more striking by Iannucci’s decision to let his British and American cast play these historical figures with their own accents.
A lesser director may have resorted to having the cast all put on Russian voices, to accentuate the comical tone, but Iannucci’s decision removes the audience from the comfort of being a dispassionate observer. It contributes to an unsettling feeling that any of this could be happening right now in London or Washington D.C., and that we aren’t special, that we too could easily adjust to living in a murderous, authoritarian regime. It is as alarming as it is funny to see Soviet officers grab a doctor in the middle of a park, to say the least.
As mentioned, Stalin takes a while to die, partly because his entourage of cowardly idiots take so long to ascertain whether he’s dead or not, because, believe it or not, they sent all the good doctors in Moscow to the Gulag. Comedy is tragedy plus time, they say, and nothing is truer in this case as we learn about and witness the inherent stupidity underpinning every decision behind the arrangements (or lack thereof) for Stalin’s death.
All of the Soviet Union’s Committee are depicted as backstabbing morons, promoted simply because they would agree to every decision Stalin made. (It leads to one of the standout scenes, where the freshly independent council still have to make every decision unanimously as they haven’t had time to change their fearsome master’s laws yet.) It was surprising to see Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, but it made sense after watching the film, for the man renowned for denouncing Stalin and reforming the Soviet Union is depicted as being as slimy and complicit as everyone else.
Amazingly, the most likable character is Simon Russell Beale’s avuncular portrayal of Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s executioner, who seems to emerge as the film’s hero, doing his best to undo the violence he helped perpetrate on Stalin’s behalf. We understand by the film’s end that he’s as monstrous and manipulative as the rest of the characters, but there’s no satisfaction to be had in Khrushchev’s inevitable triumph: they’re all overgrown children squabbling to earn favor with Stalin’s victims.
Let’s address the elephant in the room: Jeffrey Tambor is excellent as the hapless Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s deputy who finds himself way out of his depth filling in as Russia’s leader. Tambor uses his sad bulldog features to great effect, evoking most of the audience’s sympathy. Because of the allegations that led to Tambor’s firing from Transparent, he has been replaced in the US poster by Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana Stalina (Stalin’s daughter), in an ironically Stalinesque act of erasure. However, Riseborough is excellent as Stalina, and is both the film’s heart and the straight woman to the lead gang of stupid, bumbling men.
Of the rest of the cast, Rupert Friend stands out as Stalin’s alcoholic son Vasily, who spits out insults like “pie” and “testicle” with such aplomb that they sound like swear words. (He also participates in the funniest fight scene – if you can call it that – you’ll see all year.) Despite his prominence in the film’s promotional material, Jason Isaacs is barely in the film as Marshal Georgy Zhukov, and comes across as little more than a vulgar thug, though that is probably the point. Similarly, Adrian Mcloughlin’s depiction of the late Joseph Stalin as a petulant little mobster, an appropriately small and diminishing performance as the brute.Continued below
Iannucci is well known for talky dialogue scenes that become funnier as they awkwardly drag on, and there are plenty of those, but The Death of Stalin shows a lot of cinematic flair, with dramatic recreations of arrests, executions and massacres in the Soviet Union. There is some genuinely beautiful cinematography and music in these moments, as well as room for some dark humor, such as the split second it takes to receive the order that executions are to cease that condemns one prisoner, while sparing another, or when a father eyes the son who betrayed him to the secret police.
The Death of Stalin is ultimately a sumptuously shot and scored comedy that’s a hilarious and chilling condemnation of politicians afraid to speak out against mayhem and corruption. Even if you’re not into Russian history, you’ll hopefully find it an enlightening insight into the banality and mediocrity of evil, whether it’s from fallen empires, or present day banana republics. It’s well worth a trip to the theater, and will likely be one of the best comic book movies you’ll see all year.