Film review: The Death of Stalin

There's a lot to laugh at in this absurd retelling of a dark period of history, says Anne Joseph


The Soviet Union has never been so funny, thanks to the award-winning writer/director Armando Iannucci. The writer behind The Thick of It, Veep and In the Loop has now (along with David Schneider and Ian Martin) turned his satirical pen to the political landscape of 1953 Moscow.

Iannucci and co have adapted The Death of Stalin from the French graphic novels by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, which are based on true events. The result is a dark, absurdly comedic plot about how the cruel and self-serving party leadership jostle for power in the immediate aftermath of Stalin’s demise.

Fear and mistrust is all pervading under the Soviet totalitarian regime. Even when the guards outside Stalin’s room hear a loud thud, they are too frightened to do anything. Admitting that Stalin is dead is in itself a terrifying act as it could be construed as treachery but, left alone with him, Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the brutal head of the secret police, tells the dictator: “You have a nice long sleep. I’ll take it from here.”

But what follows, at first, is panic — with no one quite knowing what to do or say — one word or laugh at the wrong moment could precipitate an early death. Each of Stalin’s inner circle tries to out-scheme the other with devastating consequences.

The film is brilliantly cast and there are slick, outstanding performances from the entire, strong ensemble. Jeffrey Tambor plays Stalin’s image-obsessed, incompetent temporary replacement Malenkov; Steve Buscemi shines as the jumpy, anxious Khrushchev, who develops into an ambitious and vicious plotter and, as his rival, Beria, Russell Beale is wickedly mercurial. Paul Whitehouse is Mikoyan; Jason Isaacs plays the swaggering war-hero General Zhukov, who delights in telling Khrushchev: “I took Germany. I think I can take a flesh lump in a waistcoat,” and Michael Palin stars as simpering, bureaucrat Molotov, happy to denounce his own wife to save himself. While they each vie for authority, they also have to manage Stalin’s funeral as well as his children: Vasily (Rupert Friend), his alcoholic son intent on speaking at the funeral and daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough). Stylish throughout, there are also no fake Russian accents which somehow just adds to the farce.

Iannucci manages to make nastiness humorous and engaging, even when the depths of depravity and evil sink pretty low. Although the last act shifts pace with a slight loss of focus, becoming less witty and more chaotic, this is a film guaranteed to make you, at the very least, smile and, at times, laugh out loud.


‘The Death of Stalin’ will be released in UK cinemas from today

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