Armando Iannucci’s latest film The Death Of Stalin is a cinematic collage of excellent writing, biting satire, and strong performances.
While it may seem odd to equate fantastic satire with a film focused on the death of a Russian leader who was known for killing his enemies, Iannucci has made a career of testing limits. Veep and The Thick of It (shows he both created for American and British television) both take a satirical look at the inner workings of government in a biting manner which pushes the boundaries of conventional humor. The film In The Loop used acerbic humor to shed light on the idiocy of 10 Downing Street and the invasion of Iraq.
Our narrative begins in 1953 as Radio Moscow is broadcasting a Mozart concert which catches the ear of Stalin (played by Adrian Mcloughlin) himself. He ends up calling the booth where they are broadcasting the event to demand a recording of the concert. The only issue is no recording was made. So the director of broadcasting (played by Paddy Considine) ends up having to convince a whole theater of music lovers to sit down and listen to the same concert once more. The pianist (played by Olga Kurylenko) finds out why they are now redoing the show and refuses to go on. Seeing his life flash before his eyes (remember Stalin has killed people for lesser reasons), he offers her 20,000 rubles to stay, and she reluctantly agrees. Once the second concert concludes, Russian soldiers arrive to pick up the recording and just the director is handing it over, the pianist slips a note in the record sleeve telling Stalin what a loathsome human being he is. The recording eventually makes it to his desk. The note slips out, and he reads it causing the Russian leader to roar with laughter which quickly morphs into a massive stroke. Stalin’s death is just the start of a cavalcade of chaos which dominates the second and third acts of the film.
The film quickly pivots from the shock surrounding the Russian leader’s death to a game of who will ascend to power. For now, Georgy Malenkov (played by Jeffrey Tambor) is to take the reins of power, but Lavrenti Beria (played by Simon Russell Beale) and Nikita Khrushchev (played by Steve Buschemi) are devising plans to take over. Vyacheslav Molotov (played by Michael Palin) and Field Marshal Zhukov (played by Jason Issacs) end up taking sides during the power struggle.
One of the strengths of the film is the performance of the ensemble. The chemistry between the principal players in the narrative is off the charts. The scenes between Tambor and either Buschemi or Beale provided some of the most significant laughs. The actors weren’t seeking to overshadow one another and continuously hit their respective comedic beats. The meek nature of Tambor’s character only made the actions taken by Buschemi’s character and Beale’s seem more ridiculous. The highlight was seeing each of them sprint walking with open arms in a race to see who would be the first to welcome Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (played by Andrea Riseborough). While Palin and Issac’s roles were smaller, by comparison, each added an essential element to the ensemble. Palin brought a tinge sarcasm and wit to his character which he’s done for year dating back to his days in Monty Python. Issacs added an element of physical comedy to the film which was both enjoyable and surprising. Zhukov’s slow-motion introduction is so well played, audiences will have tears streaming down their face from laughter.
The pacing of the film is near perfect. Writers David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Iannucci were able to create a storyline which perfectly blended the historical nature of his death with the satirical high jinks going on behind the scenes while sprinkling in just enough absurdity. Composer Christopher Willis score was stirring yet seemed to have whimsical undertones. One of my only complaints about the film was why they allowed many of the characters to speak in their native accent. Hearing Buschemi delivering his lines as Khrushchev sounding like he did in Reservoir Dogs was at times distracting.
Overall, Death Of Stalin is one of the more enjoyable releases in 2018. With the release of A Quiet Place, Rampage, and Avengers: Infinity War, a film like this tends to get forgotten. Don’t let that happen!