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Review by Jack Robert Young
Who was Joseph Stalin? Well, big question… Soviet ruler from 1928 to 1953, yes. Murderer responsible for the genocide of millions? Yip. “Hot” in his younger years… yeah, I’ll give you that one. The dictator that died in a puddle of his own urine? Sort of.
It’s where The Death of Stalin begins, anyway. What follows is a non-stop journey of mayhem, as self-serving government ministers attempt to ensure their ascension to the top job whilst simultaneously kicking down their competitors. It’s a hilariously dark story, and Armando Iannucci has created a satire that is perhaps more delicate in its bantering criticism than his other major projects like The Thick of It or Veep, but does not lose its ability to entertain as a result.
The jokes are unrelenting yet perfectly natural, which is a great achievement for a director whose previous work is laden with creative expletives that are admittedly satisfying and instantly memorable. Although, perhaps sometimes they are there for the sake of the joke rather than as a natural development of the script. (I say that as a devout Iannucci fanboy, and will forever believe that Peter Capaldi’s foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker is one of the greatest characters of modern television). The humour is dark yet underplayed and often the cruel comedy is only fully appreciated when you take a moment to register the nature of certain throwaway comments. One such example regards a ‘kill list’ of enemies of the state: “Kill him in front of her and make sure he sees it, take him and kill him in the pulpit, and… I’ll leave the rest to you.” Following that, Stalin’s death signals a change in leadership, and a startlingly grim portrait of Russia is created through the changeover of staff. Dialogue between the main cast is frequently punctuated with cries of “Long live Stalin!” and gunshots. It’s both funny and quietly disturbing, and does not let up as the film progresses.
The Death of Stalin is an ensemble piece through and through. The prestige of the cast is just amazing: Jason Isaacs, Jeffrey Tambor, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Palin, Paul Whitehouse and Paddy Considine are all fantastic – their intentionally off-piste performances playing up the absurdity of the period’s events. Paddy Considine, for instance, is a sound technician who finds himself in the life-and-death situation of getting a concert recording to Stalin. It sounds absolutely ludicrous but it’s astonishing just how much is derived from fact. Of the entire ensemble, however, Simon Russell Beale and Steve Buscemi steal the show. Beale plays Lavrentiy Beria, the spymaster responsible for the surveillance of Soviet Russia, and Buscemi is Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Party. Both command every scene they are in, and when they butt heads it’s a genuine joy to see the political tug-of-war between the two as they both vie to become the alpha male.
You should see The Death of Stalin, there’s no doubt about it. It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s shockingly grim, and it’s all done in a style that feels fresh and uncompromising when compared to the current cinematic landscape of superheroes and Oscar bait.