The Death of Stalin.

Posted: November 4, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Armando Iannucci. Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Jeffrey Tambor, Olga Kurylenko and Rupert Friend.

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“Ok, who farted?”

The year is 1953 and the Soviet Union is ruled with an iron fist by Joseph Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin). Within this world even Stalin’s inner circle live in constant fear of saying the wrong thing and being arrested by the NKVD (the infamous secret police)

When Stalin unexpectedly dies the senior most members of the Presidium begin jockeying for power, trying to determine who will replace Stalin.  Georgy Malenkov (Tambor) takes initial charge, but the real battle is between Nikita Khrushchev (Buscemi) and Beria (Russell Beale) the feared head of the NKVD. For the victor ultimate power awaits, but for the loser a bullet may be the only prize…

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“Has anyone ever told you you’re kinda funny looking?”

The battle for power at the head of an evil regime notorious for the murder, rape and torture of millions, may not sound like the greatest premise for a comedy, but Iannucci’s film is genuinely laugh out loud funny at times and, based on a graphic novel of the same name, it provides a biting satire that is as chilling as it is hilarious.

Much of the humour arises out of how incompetent many of the conspirators are. These are not exactly Machiavellian geniuses, and yet their very ordinariness makes them all the more scary, and Iannucci provides a terrifying essay of the bureaucracy of evil, where even Khrushchev, one of the most powerful men in the country, is so paranoid of getting on Stalin’s bad side that he has his wife jot down which jokes Stalin found funny and which he didn’t during dinner, and for all the humour Iannucci never lets you forget the horrible things this regime is doing, and how the flick of a pen can find your name added to a list and make you the recipient of a late night knock at the door.

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No pithy comment because in truth there was nothing funny about Beria’s lists

This is an actors film and the casting is flawless. As Khrushchev Buscemi is superb, his innate likeability making you root for him in the ongoing power struggle, making you see him as the good guy, which is of course a fallacy, none of these men were good, but next to Beria of course, they’re all saints, and Russell Beale is also terrifyingly good as the head of the NKVD, a vicious sexual predator for whom no act is too heinous.

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Zhukov gets serious

Almost stealing the show however is Jason Isaacs as Marshall Zhukov, playing the blustering war hero with a broad Yorkshire accent and a chest full of medals that would pull most men to the floor (and is accurate because Zhukov really did have chest full of medals.) Zhukov is larger than life and Isaacs eats up every scene he’s in.

Tambor is astonishing as Malenkov, made up to resemble nothing short of an embalmed corpse, and its testament to his acting ability that he eventually makes Malenkov someone to pity, despite his bumbling arrogance. At the other end of the spectrum is Michael Palin as Molotov, such a party man that he happily denounced his own wife as a traitor.

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You’re playing for Stalin. No pressure!

Whilst primarily a film centred around male performances, there are two female characters, each of whom get to play a substantial role in the story. As concert pianist Maria Yudina, Olga Kurylenko is ironically the only main cast member with a Russian accent, with Iannucci deciding early on to let the actors use their natural accents. Kurylenko is very good as the nearest thing to a conscience the film has, and if there’s a problem with her it’s only insofar as she disappears for a large chunk of the middle of the film.

Andrea Riseborough plays Stalin’s daughter Svetlana as a somewhat schizophrenic character, at times extremely cognisant of her precarious situation, at others a spoiled child who thinks she can have whatever she wants, even a former lover back from the dead. She’s very good and Rupert Friend also shines as her brother Vasily, a pompous drunk who thinks Stalin’s death was part of a plot to send his father’s brain to America!

The set and costume designs are excellent, evoking a very different time and a very different place, but it’s the script and the performances where The Death of Stalin really hits home. The script walks a tightrope with a confident ease that will have you chuckling one moment, and wincing the next.

Whether you view it as a satirical deconstruction of the Soviet Union and a saltatory warning against cults of personality, or simply a surreal 20th Century set, Monty Pythonesque version of Game of Thrones, there’s a lot to like here, and best of all; in a world of sequels and prequels, reboots and franchises, The Death of Stalin is that rarest of beasts.

Original.

So go see it, unless you’d rather end up on a list of course?

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“I can see my house from up here!”

 

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