FILM REVIEW: The Death of Stalin

By Michael Upton | 23/10/2017

FILM REVIEW: The Death of Stalin

A DARKLY comic imagining of the demise of one of history’s greatest dictators could hardly have been better-timed.

It’s hard to deny we live in an era of bungling but ruthless governors — the letter-shedding backdrop to Theresa May’s speech at the recent Tory Party conference could have come straight from an episode of The Thick of It, while every utterance by Donald Trump seems increasingly-unhinged.

So Armando Iannucci’s portrayal of Stalin’s posse (they sit down to watch a cowboy film in one early scene) as a chaotic rabble at odds with the vicious, purging power of the machinery of state they possess seems completely apt.

If you imagine the spirit of The Thick of It or In The Loop teleported to 1950s Soviet Russia you won’t be far off.

After Stalin — played as a belligerent, cursing Cockney by Adrian McLoughlin — collapses in a puddle of his own urine, the ruling Community Party central committee bicker, snipe and shamble through attempts to forge a path without him.

A stellar cast led by Steve Buscemi (Nikita Khruschev), Simon Russell Beale (secret police boss Beria), Jeffrey Tambor (de facto stand-in leader Georgy Malenkov) and Michael Palin (defence head Molotov) revel in crackling dialogue (by Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin) and script packed with ludicrous situations.

Before deciding what to do with Stalin’s unconscious figure, for example, the first handful on the scene hang around waiting until they are “quorate”, such is their supposed devotion to the doctrine.

The presence of Palin is an interesting factor, as there are certainly hints of Python in general and the whole Judaean People’s Front/People’s Front of Judea spat from Life of Brian in particular in the squabbling over procedure and petty politics.

Send for a doctor, someone suggests. Small problem — all the “good” doctors have been sent to the gulag for treason.

Russell Beale’s Beria is the closest we have to a Malcolm Tucker here and his cynicism and ruthlessness prevent proceedings from descending completely into farce.

Jason Isaacs’s alpha male general Zhukov charges around chewing the scenery and barking in a Yorkshire accent, while Homeland star Rupert Friend enjoys a more light-hearted outing as Stalin’s out-of-control, vodka-drenched son.

The setting of post-war Moscow is brilliantly realised, with period interiors and exteriors spot-on, while the film-makers sensibly ditched the option of having their actors use cod-Russian accents, instead allowing the likes of Isaacs and McLoughlin to mine further humour by going for broke.

The opening segment, where Paddy Considine’s on-edge radio director panics over the details of a surprise phone call before having to order a immediate rerun of a Mozart concert to satisfy a Stalinist whim, would be a joy as a standalone sketch.

As it is, it sets the tone for 105 minutes of foreground comic capering against an ever-present backdrop of menace.

The laughs flow freely, but Iannucci and Co remind us that while poking fun at our leaders is healthy, putting the likes of Trump and Kim at the helm may have put us all on course for catastrophe.