THE DEATH OF STALIN

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Armando Iannucci

Stars: Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough, Paddy Considine, Olga Kurylenko, Adrian McLoughlin, Rupert Friend, Dermot Crowley, Paul Chahidi, Karl Johnson.

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Armando Iannucci is best known for his work on political satires like the Emmy award winning Julia Louise Dreyfuss sitcom Veep, and The Thick Of It and In The Loop, both of which featured the foul mouthed political fixer Malcolm Tucker (played with savage glee by Dr Who’s Peter Capaldi), a more edgy version of Yes, Minister’s manipulative and cunning Sir Humphrey Appleby. With his latest scathing political satire Iannucci turns his attention to 1950s Russia, and the naked grab for power following the death of its tyrannical leader. But the film is still full of his biting wit, clever one liners, and insights into the rough and tumble world of politics, in-fighting, and internecine struggles.

Russia 1953 is still in the grip of Josef Stalin, the ruthless dictator who ruled with an iron fist. People lived in fear of a minor mishap or even saying the wrong word, which could see them, and their entire family sent to the gulags, or worse. This climate of fear is perfectly illustrated in the film’s lengthy opening sequence. A singer is performing a live concert which is being broadcast on Moscow’s national radio station. As she finishes, applause erupts. A phone rings, and Stalin is on the other end of the line, personally requesting a copy of that broadcast. The producer (Paddy Considine) immediately panics, because it seems no-one recorded the show.

Security forces ensure that those still inside the auditorium again take their seats; they also head out into the streets to round up everyone they can find to fill the hall. Some of the musicians have also gone home. The conductor has knocked himself out, and they have to round up a new conductor, who shows up in his pyjamas and dressing gown. The show is recorded, and the messengers deliver it Stalin’s summer dacha outside Moscow. They are understandably nervous because of the delay.

That night Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) suffers a stroke and lies on the floor of his study. The next day the loathsome, self-serving, sycophantic and nakedly ambitious top party apparatchiks gather and begin jockeying for position and squabbling over what to do next to fill the power vacuum. They include the politically savvy and wily Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi); the dour, timid and nervous Gregory Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), who was Stalin’s hand-picked successor; the pragmatic former revolutionary Molotov (Monthy Python’s Michael Palin), and the scheming and ruthless Lavrenti Beria (theatre actor Simon Russell Beale), the head of the NKVD, Russia’s infamous security service.

Things grow more absurd as these four backstab each other as they wrestle for control of the leadership of the communist party. They even find it hard to locate a doctor to treat Stalin as he has had most of the good doctors executed or exiled for some perceived slight. The Death Of Stalin is an imaginative mix of historical events, fiction and farce that plays the paranoia, the fear of purges and the gulags and the secret police for laughs.

Iannucci takes the true events surrounding the death of Stalin and the power struggle that follows and mines the material for comedy. This dark satire about the nature of politics is based on the series of French graphic novels written by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, which explored this turbulent period of Russian history. Iannucci has co-written the script with actor turned writer David Schneider (tv series Uncle Max, etc) and Ian Martin, but there is a darker undercurrent beneath the laughs.

Iannucci has assembled a solid ensemble cast of British and American actors to play these famous Russian figures, and they all deliver great performances and deliver their profanity-laden lines in droll, deadpan fashion. Buscemi in particular is a standout as the voluble and wise-cracking Khrushchev in his rumpled, ill fitting suit, while Beale brings an intimidating air to his performance as Beria. Jason Isaacs plays Field Marshall Zhukov, a war hero whose feud with Beria and his NKVD stooges heightens the tensions, while Rupert Friend plays Vasily, Stalin’s drunken oafish son.

The Death Of Stalin has plenty of funny lines, and its cynical view and deconstruction of political machinations seems topical in its themes. However, it somehow lacks the caustic bite and sharp insight of his previous In The Loop.

★★★☆

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