Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Director Armando Ianucci transports his Emmy-winning Veep sensibilities across space and time to the Soviet Union in 1953.  Working from a script he developed with David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows--from a comic book by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin--Ianucci chronicles the events leading up to and following the despot's demise.  And "chronicle" is the correct word in the sense that they nail much of the history, and how better to skewer this terrible period than to hold a mirror up and point out its absurdity?  Of course, horrific is horrific, so the director assembled a brilliant cast of American and English actors and allowed them to amp up their on-screen personas, delivering lines about pogroms and torture without a wink or a nod.

The action unfolds as we follow Stalin's inner circle; a group of men--some cunning, some dim-bulbed, all suck-ups--whose behavior seems more in line with the Marx Brothers than Karl Marx (that was too obvious, right?).  And therein lies the satire: these men wield unchecked savagery in the service of a paranoid and sadistic leader, yet they do so in a casual, almost off-handed manner, saving their emotional investment for currying favor and getting the upper hand on each other.  After a humorous but overlong concert vignette that establishes the level of fear and paranoia among Russian citizens, we settle in at Stalin's (Adrian McLoughlin) country dacha where he relaxes, eating, drinking, and watching American cowboy movies with his inner circle. A thin veneer of forced gaiety shrouds each man's fear of getting on “the list” and results in fawning over their leader, juvenile jealousies, and timid jokes.  Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) even memorizes Stalin's responses to his jokes and has his wife, Nina (Sylvestra Le Touzel) record which did and didn't work.  That night, Stalin has a stroke and goes undiscovered until well into the next day because the guards are afraid to disturb him, and once he is discovered, his deputies are too fearful to make a decision.  In the end their dithering and frets are for naught; Stalin has died.

And so it begins: the jockeying for succession to become General Secretary, complicated by the need to cope with Stalin's children: the manic Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and the maniac alcoholic Vasily (Rupert Friend).  When those two aren't disrupting the worst-laid plans, the plot focuses on the rivalry between between Khrushchev and Deputy Prime Minister Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale, surprisingly effective at emanating farcical terror), the ruthless head of the NKVD--Soviet secret police.  Where Khrushchev is a hand-wringing improvisor, Beria is a Machiavellian plotter, both men ambitious, but both must move carefully because the nominal successor is the skittish Georgi Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor, a marvelous performance in which he portrays simultaneous pomposity and insecurity).  Another insider is Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin, in full Monty Python form), who was reputedly on "the list" and thus seems more interested in ingratiating himself to whatever successor arises.  This sets Palin up for one of the films highlights: as the leaders sit around the conference table making one of their frequent show-of-hands decisions, Molotov finds himself with the tie-breaking vote; what ensues is 30-seconds of dizzying verbal vacillation culminating in his nervous smile of satisfaction and the bewildered frowns of his compatriots.  Beria does manipulate the decision to put Khrushchev in charge of funeral arrangements while he takes charge of security.  This infuriates Nikita, but ends up working to his favor as Beria replaces the Soviet Army with his own NKVD troops, infuriating our last major player: the proud, bombastic General Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), who responds, “I’m smiling, but I am very fucking furious.”

Iannucci's strength is developing satire seasoned with slapstick while never leaving the reality plane.  In his world, truth is as strange as fiction, and both seem equally plausible.   One area where he departs from film realism is his decision to allow his performers to act as the stereotypical characters we've become familiar with in Boardwalk Empire (Buscemi), Arrested Development (Tambor), a Monty Python sketch (Palin), or in Harry Potter (Isaacs).   This strategy follows even to rejecting attempts at Russian accents in favor of voices ranging from American wise-guy to British upper-class twit.  These gambits have determined the success of the film to some critics.  We bought it; and the film.
8.0 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
8.0 out of 10 on an Artistic Scale


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