FILM REVIEW: THE DEATH OF STALIN
The Death of Stalin is in cinemas now.
Film tickets purchased by author.
Words by Luke Forsyth.
Who could’ve known that the tandem of slapstick and cold, detached violence could make for such an effective history lesson in Soviet politics.
Politics and comedy are soulmates, that much is certain—the inherent farce of the political world has rendered it a satirical hotbed, a hotbed in which Armando Ianucci (creator of Veep) has seized his place at the forefront. But even Mr Ianucci must have felt as though he was juggling landmines with his latest, The Death of Stalin, a tonal highwire act in which the narrowest of common grounds must be straddled if the exercise is to have any merit at all. It’s one thing to lean into political incompetence for the sake of comedy, it’s quite another to lean into the murderous tendencies of one of humanity’s worst ever tyrants and the submissive committee who tended to his every deadly need.
The Death of Stalin opens with exhibitions of the fear with which that titular leader ruled. At Radio Moscow, where a Mozart recital has just concluded, a nervy Comrade Andreyev (Paddy Considine) is horrified to learn via a curt phone call that Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) missed the broadcast and will require a non-existent live recording. It’s an eon-impossible request that spawns a mad scramble in which the orchestra is frantically reassembled, replete with a pyjama-clad conductor, and the auditorium repopulated (for the sake of acoustics) with the bluest of blue-collar passers-by who wouldn’t have known Mozart from Motorhead. It’s a swift snapshot of The Death of Stalin’s stock in trade: comic frenzy born out of an all too legitimate fear of death.
Whilst Radio Moscow is in shambles, Stalin is hosting a dinner party for the Central Committee at his dacha, obliging his guests to sweat on every comment they dare to make, laugh like the mad men they may very well be at their leader’s attempts at humour, and consign to watching yet another John Wayne “horse movie”. Even Stalin’s closest affiliates operate under constant fear of finding themselves on one of their comrade’s dreaded “lists”.
That Committee is chiefly comprised of the brutish and foul NKVD head Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale); the ever-submissive and manipulable Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor); the most sympathetic of the bunch, and the man most likely to pursue legitimate reform of Stalinism, Moscow Party Head Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi); and the loyal but frequently dismissed Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin.) These are the agents of Stalin’s socialist empire (each performer using their natural accent to fuel the cacophonous absurdity of it all); the men who will maniacally and manically plot like devious, headless chickens in a bid for control of the Soviet Union after it’s figurehead is left doomed in a puddle of his own urine by a cerebral haemorrhage.
“It’s Karl Marx via Grouch Marx; The Lion in Winter meets The Three Stooges”
Before Stalin has even officially left this world, Beria, Khrushchev and co. lock themselves in a jostle for symbolic and public victories— winning the trust of Stalin’s reasonably level-headed daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), seizing control of his decidedly hot-headed son Vasily (Rupert Friend), racing to be the first to implement crowd-pleasing reform and win the affections of the now leaderless masses. It’s a whirlwind; it’s Karl Marx via Groucho Marx; The Lion in Winter meets The Three Stooges, and Ianucci wrings it for every ounce of comedic farce it’s worth without ever underplaying the horror of a regime that rendered civilian lives as expendable as the pawns on a chess board, and attributed them just as much humanity. The unfeeling flippancy with which it’s all treated is laugh-out-loud funny at a glimpse, that is until we truly register what it is we’re seeing.
It’s all too easy to spot the relevance in Ianucci’s history lesson (dangerous man-children salivating over power as they grapple for their nation’s top office,) which is perhaps why The Death of Stalin never fully gets under the skin and haunts like the most scaborius political satires can. There is a glibness to the film, the director and his co-writers (David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows) settling for little more than an obvious affinity to current times and a comic overview of a known evil’s depravity. It’s not a particularly awakening or evocative insight. But nor does it undermine the fact that The Death of Stalin offers a miraculous marriage of slapstick and horror— a historical snapshot that’s as enthralling, as it is chilling, as it is absurd.