The Death of Stalin Review

The Death of Stalin (2017) Movie Review By Stephen McLaughlin 


Director: Armando Iannucci
Writers: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider
Stars: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor 

The Movie “The Death of Stalin” is based on a French graphic novel and follows the Soviet dictator’s last days and depicts the chaos of the regime after his death. Writer and Director Armando Iannucci who I have been a massive fan of for almost 30 years doesn’t disappoint in his latest project.

Penned as a comedy you would be excused in thinking this is much darker than any comedy I know and you would be correct in feeling that way. “The Death of Stalin” is a “clever comedy” and I am not trying to sound pretentious in labelling the movie this. Iannucci has taken an interesting angle on a deadly serious situation and I don’t think I have laughed as much as I did for a long time.

Before I go any further though I have to state that all of the characters in this film are satirical versions of the actual people and add to the humour. Also all the cast are speaking with their own regional accents which makes this even funnier and unique. There is not a faux Russian accent amongst them. Armando Iannucci insisted on not having the characters speak with Russian accents, for two reasons: he thought it would take audiences out of the film, and he didn’t want the actors to worry about their accent when improvising.

The cast that assembled for this film is amazing and none more so than Steve Buscemi. Seriously  This guy still amazes me. Here he plays Nikita Khrushchev, in the real world he was a Soviet statesman who led the Soviet Union during part of the Cold War as the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964. Buscemi’s take of this guy is so odd and amazing at the same time. He comes across as a bumbling idiot that is filled with paranoia towards his fellow cabinet members but to be fair they are all like that with each other. But Khrushchev here is a very clever but devious character. Buscemi’s delivery in most of his appearances on Film or TV are always delivered with that quick dead pan wit and here it is no different.

Simon Russell Beale as Lavrenti Beria is amazing to watch and is possibly the most cunning of the group. Very early on you get to know very quickly what this character is about and the lengths he will go to. One of the very first scenes is Beria going through a series of locks and keys hidden in the office of Stalin who eventually unlocks the secret vault to capture the files on his fellow cabinet members as leverage if discussions break down within their committee meeting on what to do next. He is doing all this as Stalin is lying on the ground in an unconscious state. Ruthless or what?

Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov is such a calming and funny presence compared to Russell Beale and Buscemi. Malenkov was a Soviet politician who succeeded Joseph Stalin as leader of the Soviet Union, holding this position from 1953 to 1955. Tambor’s version is strange and obscure at times and compared to the others comes across as too passive at times but this only adds to the humour of the character to me.

Another cast member who stood out for me was the no nonsense talking Field Marshal Zhukov played by Jason Isaacs. Isaacs although from Liverpool appears to have a Yorkshire accent in the film which I thought was genuine and funny. His delivery in every scene was hilarious and his one liners are what makes this film already very quotable. In reality Zhukov established good relationships with the other commanders-in-chief, US General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery and French Marshal Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. Zhukov as a marshal of the Soviet Union was the most important Soviet military commander during World War II.

These four characters are who stood out for me but the cast is so enriched with talent I would be here all day going through each and everyone of them. Olga Kurylenko, Paddy Considine, Adrian McLoughlin, Michael Palin, Paul Whitehouse, Karl Johnson and Rupert Friend all have limited but memorable parts and only add more depth to the characters and relationships throughout the film.

I also love the way this film is shot and yes you can sense most of the scenes are improvised which adds to the chaos and people running around like “headless chickens” the film’s pacing is so frantic because of this and i think this style works for the situation. In January this year “The Death of Stalin” was banned in Russia two days before it was due to be released as one member of the Culture Ministry’s advisory board was quoted as saying, “The film desecrates our historical symbols” which is fair enough and to be honest when this movie came out I honestly thought this would be the case anyhow.

Overall “The Death of Stalin” I understand will not be everyone’s cup of tea. As previously mentioned, I enjoy Iannucci’s satirical wit and clever writing. The cast are amazing and it was great to see such strong performances from them. The subject matter shouldn’t deter your decision in viewing this as political satire is something that is not new and you can go far back as Mel Brooks’s 1967 film The Producers “Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden is a fictional musical”. For me this was one of the most enjoyable comedy films of 2017 and I highly recommend it.

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