If you work in the film industry join the Cinema Jam community Click here!

Categories: Movie Reviews

Armando Iannucci’s much-awaited The Death of Stalin manages to find huge laughs in subject matter grimmer than a Soviet gulag thanks to its phenomenal cast.

With The Thick Of It covering UK politics, and Veep covering the US, it can be argued that nobody has a better grasp on the ineptitude of politicians than Armando Iannucci. Now with his latest film, The Death Of Stalin, Iannucci tackles historical Russian politics to show that no matter where or when, politicians were and are idiots.

Loosely based on the true story of the Russian government reaction to the death of Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), the film finds the Russian cabinet – Deputy Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Nikita Kruschev (Steve Buschemi), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) – coming together to help guide the country. Nikita sees the opportunity to ease up on Stalin’s torturous rule and induct a more liberal approach, however Beria starts mobilising his Police Force to manipulate Malenkov into giving him more power.

Knowing that he has to contend with Beria, the rest of the party, a funeral and Stalin’s own children, alcoholic Vasily (Rupert Friend) and too-smart-for-her-own-good Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), Nikita starts mobilising to unite the party with General Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) against Beria before it’s too late with only his wits and the idiocy of his fellow politicians to pull him through.

Obviously this is all history but Iannucci probably realises that most Western audiences aren’t wholly aware and presents it as such., Nikita is the closest thing to a hero while Beria is the villain and everyone else is stuck in the middle between them but it’s the absurd escalation that drives the story, showing how bad Russia was following Stalin’s death and the power vacuum it created.

Character work was fun with everyone embracing the ridiculousness of it all, Friend and Risborough don’t have a great deal to do with the film but their presence is felt, Friend presents Vasily as a drunken man-child with too many responsibilities and not a care for one, for the most part he’s kept out of the way but always manages to worm into places he shouldn’t be. Svetlana is definitely the sensible child and at times feels like the heart of the film. Due to her being Stalin’s daughter she has an important part to play leading to Nikita and Beria trying to please her, neither realising how quickly she sees through them.

The cabinet itself is an odd lot, Molotov is an over-the-hill old hat who knows something needs to be done but too scared to do anything. Zhukov comes in late but makes a big impression as a hard-ass General with a love of hitting people. Tambor takes a big role as Malenkov, Stalin’s deputy suddenly thrust into power with little idea of what to do with it, Tambor balances the line between idiot and out-of-his depth well and you can understand why he’s often flustered and scared.

It’s difficult to know where to start with Beria because he’s such a wonderfully horrible creature, his constant secret keeping, his scheming and bold-faced lies to keep everyone on his side, or his penchant for killing prisoners or raping their wives for their release then killing them. He’s a rotten piece and Beale plays him so despicable that you can’t help but hate the guy every time he’s onscreen, he’s absolutely the best villain so far of 2017 and it’s terrifying to think this was a real person behind the laughter.

Finally there’s Nikita, the closest thing this film gets to a straight man, Buschemi doesn’t get as many laughs but his reactions to the people around him are always fun and his attempts to outwit Beria don’t always go to plan, forcing him to improvise, the importance of where both character differ is in how they react to each other, Beria by pushing further ahead with his one plan, Nikita by adjusting his to better suit his new goals.

Naturally Iannucci captures the insanity of politics with the historical setting adding an extra layer, in a way it’s kind of refreshing to recognise that politicians have always been stupid and greedy and Iannucci plays that up here, the state’s in limbo and nobody has any clue what’s going on leading to some very funny moments as they try to figure it out. This could range from something as simple as Zhukov teasing Nikita about ratting him out or one of the more elaborate scenes like when the entire party moves Stalin’s body to his bedroom to give him a more dignified end while trying to avoid a puddle of piss. While it lacks the poetic cursing of Malcolm Tucker or the recognisable idiocy of Selena Meyer’s cabinet but as a comedic piece of history this has Iannucci’s prints all over it.

What’s surprising is how dark this gets with endless amounts of torture, rapes and murders committed by the police force – thankfully only implied. The film has this great juxtaposition of laughing at the politicians only to be reminded of the people their actions affect and the near genocidal conditions that Russia had to contend with under Stalin. It’s something that’s never been brought up in Iannucci’s work, how these idiots are responsible for the lives of millions of people, but in a way using this story allows Iannucci to bring that aspect to the front because Russia was committing these atrocities against its own people. There’s a blasé attitude to the whole thing that just makes you feel even stranger once you realise what you’ve been laughing at.

For anyone that’s enjoyed Iannucci’s previous works then The Death Of Stalin follows a similar vein of political mayhem, the historical setting allows him to take much darker roads than you might expect but all in the name of bringing this strange, sad period of time to light. Anchored by a cast all game for the ridiculousness, with Beale’s Beria being the standout for just how twisted a character he really is, this deserves to be remembered as the funniest genocide film of 2017.

The Death of Stalin is out now in cinemas.

Matthew Wilson

Operating out of Livingston, Scotland, Matthew Wilson has been self-publishing reviews since 2012 - amassing over 1000 and climbing on his personal account at MovieFanCentral- and has produced a number of short films for his Graded Unit at Edinburgh College. Matthew hopes to start writing and directing his own productions one day, having written several unpublished scripts for film and television.

Posted on Nov 3, 2017

Recent Comments

  • It is my impression that Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald were a more pop...
  • The Dickson Experimental Sound Film is interesting but not queer cinema. As...
  • Wow, I like father like son.i like your post....