‘The Death of Stalin’ brings comedic life to the screen
Directed by: Armando Iannucci
Written by: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Tom Brooke, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, and Adrian McLoughlin
“The Death of Stalin” – Meddling in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, hacking into U.S. infrastructure systems and poisoning a former double agent and his daughter in Great Britain, Russia has not exactly won many friends over the last couple years. Rightfully, Western democracies have looked at Russia with disdain, void of warm feelings.
With writer/director Armando Iannucci’s “The Death of Stalin”, perhaps that might somewhat change, because in his new film, he covers the events of 1953 Soviet Union in a very comedic and sarcastic way. Actually, after watching this movie, one will not look at the U.S.S.R. with genial regards. Blood was spilled as a result of Stalin’s (Adrian McLoughlin) passing, but this 1-hour and 47-minute satire will make you laugh. With a sharp script and several comedic actors’ well-placed timing and delivery, the film captures the absurdity of it all.
Now, the material certainly is timely in today’s political climate, but Iannucci did not create his movie as a response to Donald Trump winning the U.S. Presidency and the United Kingdom voting for Brexit. The cast and crew filmed this movie prior to both events, as he states in a 2017 interview.
“(The film) was made in the spirit of ‘My God, this happened,’ and it is now released in the spirit of, ‘God help us, please don’t let this happen again,’” Iannucci said.
Iannucci directed and co-wrote the hysterical ensemble comedy “In the Loop” (2009), about the lead up to the Iraq War. “The Death of Stalin” is not as strong as Iannucci’s 2009 creation, but it is carries similar pacing and heartbeats.
The picture begins with a beautiful orchestra concert in Moscow, and two men in the sound booth – Andreyev (Paddy Considine) and Sergei (Tom Brooke) - receive a call. A call from Josef Stalin himself! Stalin wants to listen to a recording of the performance, but alas, he asks too late, as the concert is just ending. Andreyev and Sergei then attempt to move mountains to garner an encore performance straight away, and their actions are caused by fear.
Fear of being shot.
Two important components of “The Death of Stalin” immediately jump off the screen during this opening scene.
First, no one attempts to speak with a Russian accent. Considine and Brooke are both born in England, and they speak every word of dialogue with their native tongues, as if they are performing in a play at London’s West End. It does take a minute or two to realize that the film transpires in Moscow, and no, the characters are not British, even though no one hides their accents. Second, individual actions are ruled by fear, in which double-crosses and gunplay could always transpire.
The movie feels like a blend between the historical, political and horrible stress of “To Be or Not to Be” (1983) (albeit, that film occurs in Poland during WWII) and – of course - the rapid fire comedic exchanges of “In the Loop”.
With Stalin passing away, a collection of Soviet underlings must fill a massive void, and a power grab is well…up for grabs. Well-known actors jump into the fray including Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Steve Buscemi, and Simon Russell Beale, as their characters wind through verbal minefields and plot against one another. One of the actors (who will not be named in this review) plays Nikita Khrushchev, the most prominent name that this critic recognized, but the other monikers are less important, and quite frankly difficult to sort out without a trusty history book by your side.
The fact that Stalin’s cabinet fumbles with these sudden affairs, just like ordinary people, but simultaneously plot and scheme to raise their own political advantages is the film’s hook. (By the way, as a fair warning, executions usually fall into the mix of the plots and schemes.) Most of the exchanges between the four aforementioned actors, the opening orchestra concert conundrum and actually dealing with Stalin’s body are the best moments in the picture, but admittedly, it is difficult not to follow your eyes at Khrushchev’s every move, because of his place in history.
Well, let the record show that the movie’s third act loses some momentum, but there is no denying that this film about the former Soviet Union will deliver plenty of laughs, and in 2018, that is certainly a welcome change. Although, not really…and oh, watch your back.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.