The Death of Stalin Review

“I wanted to get away from American politics,” joked Veep creator Armando Iannucci at the world premiere of his new film The Death of Stalin during the Toronto International Film Festival. “So what better way than to make a film about a narcissist who terrifies his own country?”

It’s hard not to see parallels to the current American political climate and that of the chaotic days following the demise of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin as depicted in The Death of Stalin. Of course, The Death of Stalin manages to make its events much funnier. Much, much funnier. With this film, an adaptation of a graphic novel, Iannucci, who helmed the acerbic In The Loop, has made his masterpiece, a pitch-black comedy of terrors that might be one of the most hilarious films of the 21st century.

Iannucci turns a blood-soaked coup into a verbose behind-the-scenes battle of wits and egos, detailing the struggle for power in the days after Stalin meets his end. Before Stalin kicks the bucket, however, Iannucci comically sets up how utterly terrified everyone is to live under him. After the dictator requests a recording of a concert broadcast live over the radio, the radio producer (Paddy Considine) is alarmed to learn the performance wasn’t recorded. His solution: to force the audience back in their seats and bribe the pianist to play the entire concert again so they can record it.

Stalin’s staff, including the power-hungry Nikita Khrushchev (a perfectly cast Steve Buscemi), the oblivious Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), and the downright evil Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale, both amusing and terrifying), head of the secret police, all bend to their boss’ whims, laughing extra hard at his jokes and bending over backwards to pay him ridiculous compliments.

Stalin’s death causes a power vacuum to form. Malenkov is technically now in charge, but he’s completely out of his depth, which Tambor plays up hilariously, a confused look permanently plastered on his face. Meanwhile, Khrushchev and Beria both bicker with each other to gain control. Who will come out on top? A lot of bodies will pile up before the answer becomes clear (unless, of course, you’re familiar with the real history of what happened).

The Death of Stalin piles on a cast of memorable, laugh-out-loud funny characters: there’s Stalin’s drunken, violent son (Rupert Friend) and grieving, scowling daughter (Andrea Riseborough); Michael Palin as a politician more than happy to declare his innocent wife a traitor for the good of the country; and Jason Isaacs as a general who knows how to make an entrance. All of these characters bounce off each other, verbally and sometimes even physically, in ways that will be familiar to anyone who has seen In the Loop or Veep.

But The Death of Stalin feels different than those previous Iannucci titles. Iannucci directs the film with a far more cinematic eye than he has before, coupled with dreary yet stunning cinematography from Zac Nicholson. Also setting this apart from Iannucci’s previous work is the fact that he’s telling a story about real historical figures, which only increases the overall darkness of the material. There are an abundance of horrors here – innocent people rounded up and murdered, threats of torture, and more; and while Iannucci finds ways to make these massacres morbidly amusing by the way he shoots them (they’re often taking place in the backgrounds of mundane conversations), the reality slowly begins to set in: this is crazy and it actually happened.

The cast assembled here give dynamite performances across the board, each of them taking quite nicely to the rapid-fire, insult-laden dialogue. Tambor in particular seems tailor-made for this type of humor. But it’s unquestionably Buscemi who steals the show, giving one of his most memorable performances since his role in Ghost World.

As The Death of Stalin nears its end, things turn considerably more disturbing, to the point that you might forget it’s even a comedy. Yet Iannucci brings it all back home with an afterword that underlines the satirical thrust of the film: as long as there are power-hungry mad men out there, the cycle will never end. Stalin may be dead, but people who want to become leaders just like him are still very much alive.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

Cool Posts From Around the Web:

About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a writer who frowns a lot. He's contributed to CutPrintFilm, /Film, Mashable, The Film Stage, Birth.Movies.Death, The Playlist, Paste Magazine, Little White Lies and O-Scope Musings. 'The House on Creep Street' and 'Beware the Monstrous Manther!', two horror books for young readers Chris co-authored with J. Tonzelli, are available wherever books are sold. You can follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413