Friday, 9 March 2018

Review #1,312: 'The Death of Stalin' (2017)

After spending most of the 1990s helping create the likes of The Day Today and I'm Alan Partridge - two of the greatest comedy works to have ever come out of Britain - satirist Armando Iannucci really made a name for himself with The Thick of It, a political farce centred around a bunch of politicians and spin doctors within a fictional government department going to ridiculous lengths to further their own careers and avoid the sack at the behest of an unseen prime minister. This led to the brilliant spin-off feature film In the Loop, before he would go on to tackle U.S. politics with acclaimed HBO series Veep. These groundbreaking satires now seem like they were a mere warm-up for his most ambitious project yet, The Death of Stalin, which covers the panic-stricken aftermath following the demise of one of the Soviet Union most notorious dictators, Joseph Stalin.

For the film, Iannucci has gathered together some of the finest British actors working today: those who are as comfortable with improvisation as they are with brooding monologues. Michael Palin is Molotov, the nervously chirpy minister who remained loyal to Stalin after the execution of his wife; Andrea Riseborough is Svetlana, Stalin's emotionally crumbled daughter; and Rupert Fried is the drunken son Vasily. Most impressive of all is Simon Russell Beale as the reptilian Lavrenti Beria, a man renowned for his love of rape and torture who is now desperately picking up the scraps and trying to seize power. Working against Beria is Steve Buscemi's Khrushchev, the former cabinet jester who may actually be the country's best bet. Trying to hold it all together is Jeffrey Tambor's timid Malenkov, who despite unwavering loyalty to his leader discovers his name on a death list before the big guy drops dead, and is installed as acting Premier shortly after.

There are many belly laughs to be enjoyed in The Death of Stalin, but Iannucci's approach to the subject matter often approaches horror territory. While the worst the players in The Thick of It faced was public embarrassment or a dressing down from Malcolm Tucker, here one ill-timed comment can land you with a bullet in the head. It's an incredibly scary place, where characters stroll nonchalantly through grey buildings as screams and gunshots hum in the background, and people are taken from their homes by armed officers for some imagined slight. The comedy and tragedy are incredibly well-balanced, and intensifies the absurdity of political life to genuinely concerning levels. Watching the terrible events unfold as these desperate men stutter and scurry around like rats, willing to back-stab and manipulate their colleagues without pausing for breath if it means buying themselves some extra time, is irresistible. As you would expect, Iannucci's script (co-written by David Schneider and Ian Martin) is expletive-laden and sharp as a dagger, and the entire ensemble are at the top of their game. It's unlikely The Death of Stalin will ever see a release in Russia, but someone should definitely suggest Putin adds it to his IMDb watchlist.

Directed by: Armando Iannucci
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Palin, Paddy Considine, Jason Isaacs, Rupert Friend, Olga Kurylenko
Country: UK/France/Belgium

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

The Death of Stalin (2017) on IMDb

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