Directed By Armando Iannucci
Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Jason Isaacs, Jeffrey Tambor
Film Review by Jack Bottomley
Comedy is not easy at the best of times but comedy surrounding real subjects is an even trickier beast. However, when it comes to wrier/director Armando Iannucci – whose credits include The Thick Of It, Veep, The Day Today and Alan Partridge – his brand of satirical political Comedy has specialised in wrangling difficult/complex material into comedy gold. Case in point, Iannucci’s 2009 full feature film directorial debut In The Loop (a film spin-off of The Thick Of It), which is a modern Comedy classic and which took aim at boardroom motivated declarations of war, governmental power games and spin doctoring at times of uneasy political pressures. Now, Iannucci returns to the big screen with The Death of Stalin, which the poster calls “A Comedy of Terrors” and that is a most accurate description indeed.
Brazenly, this feature is set in 1953 Russia and the film centres on the unexpected death of Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin, whose untimely demise throws the whole regime into flat out panic. Stalin, as a figure of socio-political history, is one that remains controversial and the atrocities of his era still echo through the world today. So, crafting a satire of this ruthless and uncertain time is an unenviable task but this film, based on the graphic novel of the same name by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, is not only brilliant but it is the best film this writer has seen this year.
The screenplay by Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows is sharper than a switchblade and perfectly balances rib-aching laughs with lingeringly horrific scenes of power and depth. The Death of Stalin is the work of a satirical genius and is a piece of film that belongs in the company of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The period is disturbingly aptly evoked and yet – even more frighteningly – the scenes of behind the scenes political calamity and clueless figureheads feel all too relevant for the uncertain contemporary age in which we currently reside. Behind all the instantly quotable lines and eye watering comic virtuosity is a background of death, torture and fear and this film pulls no punches in not only lampooning its perturbed era but also portraying the full mercilessness of its terror.
That being said, as I said previously, the balance is masterful, yes the film is dark but never does one side overtake the other and the hilarity is remarkably ever present, even at times of true onscreen barbarism. The film conjures up countless scenes of pitch perfect satire; from an early music hall drama to a funeral filled with ridiculous tensions and baffled characters trying to create cohesion where there is only chaos. This is one hell of a funny film about one hell of a dark subject.
The writing, direction, score and visual presentation all factor in to the film’s achievements but a major contributing factor is the incredible ensemble cast that has been assembled here. So great are the cast that choosing one favourite performance is virtually impossible and it is to the credit of all involved that each character gets a chance to shine. Each actor has a differing accent, avoiding any forced Russian inflections, and while this initially could have distracted it proves an intelligent move, as the accents add further facets to each and every character.
Simon Russell Beale is unrecognisable and chilling as Lavrentiy Beria, head of Stalin’s secret police, hateably bullying his way through the film and creating a real master manipulator. Then there is the ever marvellous (and often ludicrously underrated) Steve Buscemi as Nikita Krushchev, who is at his darkly comic and screen enthralling best, while Jeffrey Tambor, as Stalin’s anointed – and dumbfounded - successor Georgy Malenkov is excellent and the source of some truly hysterical sequences. However specific praise should go to Rupert Friend as Stalin’s son Vasily, who evokes Kenneth Mars’ barmy performance in Mel Brooks’ influential The Producers. As well as an uproarious Jason Isaacs, who devours scenes as the Yorkshire accented Georgy Zhukov, the only character in this entire political shitstorm who is unafraid of his future fate because of ego, no nonsense attitude and his esteemed and feared reputation at the head of the Soviet army.
These are but a few highlights in a cast full of them, with supporting performances from Michael Palin (as Vyacheslav Molotov), Andrea Riseborough (as Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Stalina), Dermot Crowley (as Lazar Kaganovich), Paul Chahidi (as Nikolai Bulganin), Paul Whitehouse (as Anastas Mikoyan), Olga Kurylenko (as pianist Maria Yudina), Adrian McCloughlin (as Stalin himself) and Paddy Considine as Comrade Andreyev. Everybody is tremendous and each is worth mountains of praise and awards recognition.
The Death of Stalin is a masterpiece. Everybody involved in its making deserve applauding for creating such a funny, bold, thought provoking, alarming and unforgettable film. There is literally not a foot put wrong here and Iannucci once again shows us why he is a war hero on the satirical comedy battlefield.