Death of Stalin, The (United Kingdom/France/Belgium, 2017)

March 16, 2018
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Death of Stalin, The Poster

Roger Ebert once said that, if done right, any topic could be the subject of a comedy. In that spirit, consider The Death of Stalin. From the title, one might assume that this is a serious look at a seminal event of 20th Century world history. Stalin’s demise, after all, had repercussions that shaped the Soviet Union and US/USSR relations for decades. However, Armondo Iannucci’s film, despite remaining generally true to the established facts, is less interested in chronicling events than in using them as the basis for farce and satire. So, with tongue in cheek and pen ready to skewer, Iannucci allows actors like Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, and Jeffrey Tambor to explore the fatuous sides of some very famous, not-so-nice people.

At times, the screenplay feels influenced by Monty Python (not an unreasonable association considering Palin’s involvement) or the Coen Brothers. But the real connection is with Iannucci’s TV series “The Thick of It” and the subsequent theatrical extension, In the Loop. (He is also the creator of “Veep.”) For the most part, The Death of Stalin is more interested in quiet chuckles than full-bodied guffaws, although there are some laugh-aloud moments. This is one of those films where the comedy prefers to accentuate characters’ deficiencies than pursue slapstick. Because of this, Buscemi, Palin, Tambor, and a deliciously pompous and over-the-top Jason Isaacs (as Field Marshal Zhukov) shine.

The movie opens during the final days of the reign of Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), who is presented as a stiff, humorless, monosyllabic figure who rubber-stamps the enemies lists concocted by the head of the NKVD (the KGB’s predecessor), Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale). After suffering a cerebral hemorrhage, Stalin lingers for several days while key policy-makers, including Nikita Khrushchev (Buscemi), Vyacheslav Molotov (Palin), Beria, and Stalin’s protégé, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), bicker about the path forward. Eventually, a power struggle erupts between Khrushchev and Beria, with both trying outmaneuver the other in everything from allowing the trains to run on the day of Stalin’s funeral to wooing the favor of the former leader’s daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough). The meaning of the word “harm” acquires great significance.

Iannucci takes many of the true incidents surrounding Stalin’s funeral and the succession struggle and mines them for comedic gold. The very real fear that a tiny misstep could result in a trip to a windowless cell or a bullet to the back of the head becomes a punchline for numerous scenes (including the hilarious opening sequence in which an entire concert has to be redone because the first performance wasn’t recorded for Stalin). The characters are all presented as venal, arrogant, and myopic in the extreme and are all the more amusing as a result. If there’s a sense of uneasiness, it’s caused by the consideration that Iannucci isn’t exaggerating nearly as much as we might hope. There’s plenty of cruelty to go along with the incompetence and backstabbing.

In the United States, The Death of Stalin targets a niche audience. And, although it’s true that a little knowledge of history will enhance the film’s effectiveness (one laughs more fully at the jokes when the underlying truth is understood), there’s a universality to the humor that will reach even those with only a vague knowledge of who Stalin was. (The bad guy who used to rule Russia, right?) The Death of Stalin isn’t as brilliant and cutting as In the Loop (nor is it as profane) but it’s a recognition that historical politics can be just as bizarre and absurd as the modern flavor.

Death of Stalin, The (United Kingdom/France/Belgium, 2017)

Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: 2018-03-16
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1