D: Armando Iannucci / 106m
Cast: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Jason Isaacs, Rupert Friend, Dermot Crowley, Paul Whitehouse, Paul Chahidi, Paddy Considine, Adrian McLoughlin
The Death of Stalin could have easily been subtitled Fear and Loathing in Moscow, such are the high levels of animosity and opposition that ensue following the death of Soviet leader, “Uncle Joe” Stalin (McLoughlin). As the various members of the Central Committee scramble to establish a way forward – and more importantly, decide which one of them will be the country’s new leader – loyalties are tested, schemes are hatched, alliances are forged, but political manoeuvring continues unabated (it’s just that some of the goals, and the goalposts themselves, are changed from moment to moment). Under the satirical gaze of writer/director Armando Iannucci, the events that took place in the wake of Stalin’s death provide the basis for a movie that combines very black humour with a surprisingly serious approach to the material that helps the movie operate effectively on two separate levels, both comedic and dramatic.
While not everything happened in the way that Iannucci portrays it, some things did, and it’s the way in which he emphasises the absurdity of these real events that adds greatly to the effectiveness of the screenplay which has been co-written by Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin, with additional material by Peter Fellows, and which itself is based on a screenplay by original source material writer Fabien Nury (The Death of Stalin has been adapted from the comic book of the same name). One such event occurs following the stroke Stalin suffered on 1 May 1953. When he’s found the next morning, it takes around twelve hours for a doctor to be called, as each member of the Central Committee refuses to make a decision by themselves in case Stalin recovers and takes them to task for their actions. It’s only when all the Committee members are in agreement that a doctor is needed that anything more is done. But then there’s another issue: thanks to the recent Doctors’ Plot, where prominent doctors were accused of conspiring to assassinate Soviet leaders, all the good, well regarded physicians in Moscow have been either imprisoned or executed. So, who to call? It’s moments like these, absurdist moments that challenge the perception of what’s real and what’s invented that makes the movie so enjoyable to watch.
But Iannucci isn’t solely interested in pointing out how ridiculous some of the events surrounding Stalin’s death were, but also how deadly serious that milieu was and how nothing could be taken for granted, be it a job, a reputation, or worse still, a life. Iannucci is quick to show the darker side of Soviet life in the Fifties, with Stalin’s Head of Security, Lavrentiy Beria (Beale), relishing his role as a combination accuser, torturer, and executioner, whether he’s chasing down real enemies of the state or fabricating evidence to convict the innocent through political expediency. With Stalin’s full support while he’s alive, Beria has attained a position of power that he seeks to build on once his mentor is dead, and as he manipulates the Deputy Leader, the fragile minded Georgy Malenkov (Tambor), it’s left to Nikita Khrushchev (Buscemi) to put a stop to Beria’s ambitions.
One of the more absurdist notions of Iannucci’s movie is that it puts forth Nikita Khrushchev as its hero, but this was Khrushchev’s time, the moment where he took power in the wake of Stalin’s death and set about making long-lasting reforms. Here he’s a worried politician who wants to see an end to the tyranny of Stalin’s rule, and fears that Beria’s influence on Malenkov will see an unnecessary continuation of past horrors. Iannucci makes it clear that fear is the one overwhelming motivator in Soviet life, no matter what level you’re at. There’s fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of being seen with the wrong person, fear of ignorance and knowledge together, and fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The movie shows how stressful this must have been, and how easy it must have been to make a simple honest mistake that might mean the difference between life and death, and how either outcome could shift according to whim or will.
Such a dark period in Soviet history (one of many though, to be fair) might not be the best subject for a dark comedy, but The Death of Stalin is more than that, and as well as its exploration of a society living in fear, it also seeks to examine how power corrupts those who look for it above all else – Beria seals his fate by threatening each of the other Committee members with what he knows about them. These dramatic moments, where the political jockeying turns brittle and ugly, allows the humour to have even more of an impact; if you didn’t laugh, you’d have to acknowledge the tragedy and the terrible nature of what’s happening. But Iannucci knows when to raise a laugh and when to keep the drama humour-free. It’s a delicate tightrope that he traverses, but he does it with style and confidence, creating a restrained yet also panic-ridden atmosphere for his characters to operate in. He also finds time to highlight the self-serving hypocrisy of the Committee members, something that’s best expressed through the attitude of Vyacheslav Molotov (Palin), who denounced his wife for the good of the party – and his own position within it.
With Iannucci and his co-writers putting together such a good script, and Iannucci himself proving that he’s firmly in control of both the tone and the pace of the movie, things are made even more impressive by the cast that he’s assembled. Buscemi is terrific as Khrushchev, a bureaucrat holding the fate of a nation within his hands, while Tambor’s turn as Malenkov is a delight, even if you have to wonder how such a dimwit got onto the Committee in the first place. There are first-rate supporting turns from Isaacs as a very gruff, very Yorkshire-sounding Head of the Red Army, Georgy Zhukov; Riseborough as Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana; Considine as an under threat theatre manager who really needs to record a live concert; and Palin, who gives such a subtle reading of his character that it serves as a reminder that when he’s not travelling the world, he’s a very accomplished actor indeed. But if anyone stands out it’s Beale as the venal, grotesque Beria, a character who seems fully formed from the moment we first see him, flinging horrible caustic remarks about with no concern for the feelings of others, and telling the audience everything they need to know about him in one perfect line of dialogue: “Have a long sleep, old man. I’ll take it from here.” It’s a performance that’s unlikely to win any awards thanks to the nature of the movie, but if Beale did win an award, it would be entirely justified. It’s the perfect cap to a movie that operates effectively on so many levels, and which has a lot more going on below the surface both in terms of the narrative, and its recreation of a period when laughing at senior Soviet politicians would have meant a swift trip to a gulag…or worse.
Rating: 8/10 – a movie that treats its historical backdrop with a great deal of respect (even when it alters certain facts to suit the material), The Death of Stalin is a small, unassuming gem of a movie that is both horrifying and amusing at the same time, and without either element undermining the other; with its clutch of richly perceptive performances, cleverly constructed humour, and astute direction, it’s a movie that may not find the wider audience it deserves, but is nevertheless a must-see for anyone who likes their political satire barbed and ready to sting.