THE DEATH OF STALIN
Director: Armando Iannucci
Screenwriter: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin & Peter Fellows, from the graphic novel La Mort de Stalin by Fabien Nury & Thierry Robin.
Simon Russell Beale
Runtime: 107 mins.
Australian release date: 29 March 2018
Previewed at: The Reel Room, Sydney, on 12 March 2018.
British satirist Armando Iannucci is better known for his television writing and directing of series like The Thick Of It and Veep than he is for cinema, but The Death Of Stalin is not his first foray into film; he previously co-wrote and directed the 2009 political spoof In The Loop, although admittedly it was a spin-off from The Thick Of It. In his new film he makes fun of one of the grimmest of times in Soviet Russia, the last days of Joseph Stalin’s ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and, in particular, the events that took place immediately after the murderous leader’s death in March 1953. And what extraordinary events they were.
After a very funny opening act involving the request by Stalin for a copy of a classical music concert that had just taken place - and wasn’t recorded - we are introduced to Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) and his group of opportunistic hangers-on: Moscow Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushkev (Steve Buscemi), head of the secret police, the NKVD, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), diplomat Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) and Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor). As their night of drinking ends, Stalin receives his requested concert recording but, as he prepares to listen to it, he suffers a massive stroke and collapses to the floor; and, having left strict instructions not to be disturbed, that is where he remains until late the following day. Naturally this cataclysmic event sends all and sundry, great and small, into a desperate panic and the jockeying for position begins. But these were dangerous and deadly times. Being outmanoeuvred by these politicians could easily lead to death or imprisonment, so the battle for succession was ruthless and fierce. As Iannucci says, “All the characters are brutal and thuggish, but you warm to some even while loathing others, so I wanted the audience to be reminded that these characters’ actions and decisions had devastating consequences for the people.”
The all-star cast speak their roles in their own voices, replicating in a way the diverse accents that would have surrounded Stalin. For one thing, Stalin himself was Georgian (as was Beria) so he would’ve had a very different inflection than most Muscovites; others in his circle came from diverse parts of the Soviet territories. It’s a device that works and you soon don’t notice the different modes of speech. What you do notice is the ‘every man for himself’ attitude that drives these characters. The story the screenplay follows is reasonably close to the truth, hard as that may be to believe; in fact, in some parts the reality is so outlandish that the writers had to tone them down, lest they weren’t believed. The Death Of Stalin gets darker and darker as it progresses and, indeed, it gets harder and harder to laugh as events come to a head. There are good reasons for the MA15+ classification! These are “dirty deeds, done dirt cheap” but they’re very costly for the losers.
Overall, Iannucci does a good job of managing the humour and the tragedy of these terrible events. It’s a delicate balancing act but, for the most part, he pulls it off. The Death Of Stalin may not be to everyone’s taste and its humour is not as broad as Iannucci’s TV work (there’s no-one as likably hateable as Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker, for example) but fans of his humour and people interested in politics will find fertile ground here. At the very least, they’ll learn that in the world of politics, ‘plus ça change.’