Film Review: ‘The Death of Stalin’


Master satirist Armando Iannucci’s returns with yet another biting dramedy, this time taking a moment to poke the old red bear.

Being a satirist can be a challenging undertaking, requiring a significant amount of insight, intellect, and most importantly, humor. After all, a satirist is only as good as their jokes. It is their ability to make us laugh at the absurd and the crude nature of everyday life that makes them so cherished, particularly in a time in which satirists are perhaps the most important sort of social commentators that one could hope to hear. Whether it is the inane bureaucracy of governance or the incongruence of warmongering, political satirists act as the child in the short tale Emperor’s New Clothes. They are the ones who dare to point out that the emperor is indeed naked.

And it appears that that child has come in the form of Armando Iannucci. The Scotsman has cemented himself in as one of the premier satirists in today’s tumultuous world, having been at it for more than 20 years. From his numerous riotous TV shows including The Thick of It and Veep to the hysterical cinematic forays Tube Tales and In the Loop, Iannucci has frequently showcased a shrewd and wickedly funny look into the absurdity of typically banal social or political constructs. Whether it be the apathetic disconnect between government action and reaction in The Thick of It or the hilariously masochistic political maneuvers in Veep, Iannucci has taken his responsibility as the mirror to society in stride. Iannucci has laid the groundwork to being the best in the business at poking fun at political ineptness, a quality that comes out in full force in The Death of Stalin.

The Death of Stalin kicks off much like you’d imagine–with the death of Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin). At that point, the race is on to see which perspicacious inner cabinet member will succeed the terrifying cult of personality set by Uncle Joe. Early on, it becomes increasingly apparent that Moscow Party Head Nikita Khrushchev (an excellent Steve Buscemi) and NKVD Head Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale puts in a brilliant performance) are leaps and bounds ahead of their competitors. While Beria and Khrushchev have already begun consolidating power, the spineless Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), the ousted Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), and the rest of the Committee lay in the wake of the two men’s ferocious desire to succeed Stalin.

The Death of Stalin is based on the graphic novel of the same name by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, making this Iannucci’s first adapted work. It also makes this work the first time in which Iannucci has not established his world in a modern setting and finally, this is Iannucci’s first foray into the world of non-fiction (albeit with some much needed factual freedoms). It is a significant series of new challenges that Iannucci has put onto himself, ones that he naturally overcomes in his well-structured, sharp, and jocular approach. Whether it is the ironically inept voting procedures where everyone must vote unanimously or the satirical view of fear as the be-all end-all for motivation, The Death of Stalin finds the inherently absurd comedy within a world of terror and torture.

That is certainly helped by the easy-going yet precise performances put in by a brillian ensemble cast. From drop-ins like Jason Isaac’s wonderful turn as Red Army Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov to Rupert Friend’s well-accented slapstick humor in his role as the bumbling alcoholic Vasily Stalin, each character in this game of power adds their own spice and vigor to the brewing comedic intrigue. But for all the gracious and well-tuned performances put in and the sharp, whip-smart writing to be seen, there is a quality that is discernibly missing from Iannucci’s most recent affair. Whether it is the troubling apathy of Stalin’s heinous war crimes or the underlooked pedophilia of Lavrentiy Beria, many of the most troubling aspects of the film’s diegetic world are glossed over with no real cathartic respite for the viewer. Instead, we are zoned into the escalating competitiveness between Beria and Khrushchev to become the new Red Tsar, leaving viewers wondering whether there is any sort of complacency on our part.

The Death of Stalin is set to be released in US on March 9 by IFC Films.


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