Synopsis – Follows the Soviet dictator’s last days and depicts the chaos of the regime after his death.
My Take – As well all know the infamous the Soviet revolutionary Joseph Stalin, who died in the mid- Twentieth Century, was known mainly for leading one of the darkest periods in modern history. It was during his governing, the Soviet Union was filled mass killings, executions, rape, torture and most of all, authorized murder! For any filmmaker, it must have been very daunting to make a film revolving around the period during the death of one of the world’s most notorious dictators and mass murderers, Joseph Stalin and its aftermath. However, director Armando Iannucci embraced this challenge and fully succeeded in its goal, as this is one of those films where expectations were high (considering there are some truly great actors here) and those expectations were only met but exceeded. Knowing that it was both written and directed by the Armando Iannucci (Veep), I thought that I was going to encounter a full-blown, satirical comedy, but instead – while there are certainly plenty of laughs from a sharp script – this is an altogether darker work, full of foreboding, terror and casual slaughter, than I was anticipating. It’s clearly not for the faint hearted, as it can be violent, while it is very evocative and well-researched, it is history but not quite as we know it. Some may have a problem with the film not having authentic Soviet accents, and instead a mix of English and US ones, to me this was not a problem as there are many adaptations of Russian literature that mostly don’t attempt authentic accents and when they are attempted it has wildly variable results. Despite how it sounds it is not even close to being as offensive as it easily could have been, making something funny out of one of the darkest periods on paper does not sound tasteful, as the film splendidly works its way around that potential issue. Chances are that even if one is not interested in politics, one should watch this one even if one is at least a bit intrigued by the notorious Soviet leader’s death and power struggles that followed it.
Based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, the story follows every big player and their farcical goings on surrounding the last days of the great dictator in 1953. Whilst reading a note from pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) about wanting to see him dead as he listens to a recording of hers, Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) suffers a cerebral hemorrhage. While the constitution dictates that Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) secedes but, as a weak man, the job is clearly soon going to become vacant again, resulting in his fellow commissariat members, spy- chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) to jolt for the position. While their colleagues including Tarasov (Richard Brake), Molotov (Michael Palin) and Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse) have to decide who to side with as the machinations around Stalin’s funeral become more and more desperate, all the while trying to contain Stalin’s drunken son Vasily (Rupert Friend) and hysterical daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) out of the succession. Matters complicate more as army chief Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) enters the capital and may have a final say in who will lead the Soviet Union. This leads to lots of typical Iannucci directed fast dialogue and improvised banter in the workplace, as each actor brings a unique personality to their historical figures. Director Armando Iannucci is widely acclaimed for his political satire comedies, but here comes the project that might just become his first magnum opus. It is a great achievement that director Iannucci is able to see the comic absurdity in the atrocities of the NKVD (precursor to the KGB), and in the terrifying power wielded by a tiny cabal of aging men. Here, director Armando Iannucci directs with complete command and control of the subject, his trademark touches of political amorality and dark and sometimes broad but witty and offbeat humor come through loud and clear. He doesn’t try to soften reality, nor does he try to make it one big joke, he could easily have done that but he doesn’t and he deserves a lot of credit for that. As expected of director Iannucci, the style is theatrical – relatively small and closed sets, a lot of fast dialogue and not many events or set pieces to speak of – but the humor is sharp and you can’t really get anything less than great performances out of the cast this awesome. Here, director Armando Iannucci is able to convey that ego and misunderstanding can derail even the best political intentions, often to the point where it’s a miracle that nation- states can function at all. The film starts extremely strongly with the ever-excellent Paddy Considine playing a Radio Russia producer tasked with recording a classical concert, featuring piano virtuoso Maria Yudina. A definition of paranoia in action! We then descend into the chaos of Stalin’s Russia, with mass torture and execution coloring the comedy from dark-grey to charcoal- black in turns. At the ACT 1 and ACT 2 of the film, director is trying to shows completely weakness of decision making process between characters, after ‘mustache leader’ gone. Someone’s are playing in political poker trying to bring more positive and bright into people lives, after Stalin’s years of terror, someone trying to build a new country with new reforms and laws. Someone wish to leave all like it is and lives by the same rules as it was before. Someone is too weak in taking own decisions and they change, like a water takes the form based on environment. It sounds like everyone from team has some their individuality and strong sides, but when it comes time to vote or take single or group responsibility for some action – each one of them become little kid and afraid to say something. The film held my interest throughout, but the comedy is just so dark in places it leaves you on edge throughout.
Not to mention a superb attention to historical detail which concentrates not only the Soviet glamour but how crumbly and shabby everything was behind the facades, what’s not to like, right? If you are expecting Monty Python comedy or a Hollywood action style film then obviously you’ll be disappointed. This did however have its clever comedic moments which were starkly contrasted with the gritty realism of kidnappings executions and moments of official sociopathic behaviors. One thing I look for and often don’t find in modern comedies is actual comedic material, but I’m happy to say that in this film I actually found material that really made me laugh! Several scenes: the actual death of Stalin, moving his body, Paul Whitehouse dialogue, and the appearances of Stalin’s crazy children, Stalin’s funeral and the arrival of Field-Marshal Zhukov are just some of the brilliant and hilarious sketches in the film. Buscemi‘s line as Khrushchev denotes the quick wit of the writers and cast, but also the very nature of politics and how it is all about what is said, and what is not said. To succeed, each must eliminate his opposition as quickly as possible; the more ruthless the better. Every act has a distinct purpose to it: to gain the upper hand. Though this being Soviet Russia, getting bumped-up the order on the news is not enough. The end takes a sinister twist as each is exposed for their previous and present crimes, with the victor the one able to vilify the other fastest. This is handled by the cast in a day-at-the-office manner; a stoic nature born when making decisions affecting the lives and deaths of others. Production design is another highlight of the film. Physical comedy and moving from room to room may entertain the eye, but the ensuring that the air of 50s Russia is consistent is also essential. The shots of the Kremlin and Red Square are suitably lavish, while the headquarters of the NKVD have the feel of a dungeon on steroids. One cannot talk about the film without mentioning the uniformly outstanding cast. With none of them thankfully having to put Russian accents on, the ensemble cast each give amazing performances. The standouts being Simon Russell Beale giving a performance of almost Shakespearean complexity and that Beale is able to incorporate a comedy into the role is a mastery of writing and performance. This downfall of a sexual deviant could not come at a more apt time for Hollywood. Steve Buscemi, also bags some of the best moments. Jason Isaacs steals scenes when he appears and Paddy Considine delights in his, Andrea Riseborough makes the most of her role and Rupert Friend being this good was a pleasant surprise. Michael Palin is indeed more subdued form than usual but it suited the character and he does it perfectly, personally like that side to him. Jeffrey Tambor was great fun to watch and so was Olga Kurylenko. On the whole, ‘The Death of Stalin‘ is a sharp and an absolutely hilarious political satire which delightfully retells a historical event without trivializing the horrors of the time.
Directed – Armando Iannucci
Rated – R
Run Time – 106 minutes