Director: Armando Iannucci
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Paul Whitehouse, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Paul Whitehouse, Jason Isaacs
Armando Iannucci is arguably the world’s most famous Italian Scot. After finding success with British political send-up ‘The Thick of It’ and American political send-up ‘Veep’, Iannucci found himself a niche as a singular voice in political satire, combining the typically awful people found in politics with jet black, profanity laden humour. His latest effort, his second directorial venture into film after 2009’s ‘In The Loop,’ chronicles the remarkable true story of, you guessed it, the death of Stalin. What follows is much of what you’d expect from an Iannucci creation, but it doesn’t have that sharpness for which he was so renowned.
‘The Death of Stalin’ follows Stalin’s various aides (First Secretary, Secretary of Defence, Chief of the Secret Police etc.) as they scramble around attempting to contain the rather large issue of Stalin suddenly dying, as well as figuring out who succeeds Stalin, what happens next for Russia on a global scale, and organising Stalin’s state funeral.
It’s important to know heading into this film that I don’t think it’s wholly necessary that you should be well-versed in Russian politics to understand it. Most key details are explained thoroughly enough, but it does expect you to follow along. Any Iannucci project is full of people who talk very quickly, so it’s our responsibility to keep up. Iannucci does, however, have a knack for throwing 20 lines of complicated political talk and injecting it with a blunt insult or a swear word to draw our attention back in in case anyone was wavering. It’s fascinating to see it at work in this setting, particularly because every single Russian character in the film has a British accent.
That realisation is jarring. It takes you a few minutes to adjust. You have people like Paddy Considine and Paul Whitehouse talking to people named Vyacheslav and Malenkov and Khruschev in a London accent. It’s peculiar initially, but it makes sense for what we’re watching. The complexities of what is happening can be hard to follow, particularly if everyone was speaking in a strong Russian accent. Allowing the actors to use their own accents makes them stand out to us, the general audience, and helps us separate each character from each other. As you can see from the cast list above, the ensemble here is huge. Every character has agency in the film too, every character has a part to play in the grand story of the film and of Russia as a whole. That works hugely in the film’s favour, and benefits many of the comedic moments of the film.
Of which, there are, indeed, many. The opening scene is classic Iannucci, where a famous orchestra has finished their performance. Paddy Considine working the sound gets a phone call from Stalin himself asking for a recording of the performance. Considine, of course, realises they didn’t record it. He then must scramble around getting the orchestra back together, filling the quickly empty audience with random people form the street, and then having to find a replacement conductor after the initial conductor knocks himself out on a fire bucket. Meanwhile, the Soviet Secret Police are out executing and arresting various targets for crimes against the country. It’s a wonderful, ridiculous, shocking opening sequence that is played mostly for laughs, while establishing the darkness and cruelty at hand.
This opening sequence is ‘The Death of Stalin’ in a nutshell. Funny scenes, great one-liners, physical comedy truncated by realisations of how insane the Soviet Union was in 1953. It had a dictatorial air about it similar to that of Hitler in Nazi Germany, any mistake that could be considered as anti-Russia saw you killed. Iannucci balances this masterfully and he is the perfect writer to tackle such a heavy subject matter. There is a fascinating period drama here that lasts three hours and doesn’t flinch on any of the more tragic or nasty details. As such, Iannucci makes it consumable to us with his unique style. The act of Stalin’s aides literally carrying his body from his office to his bedroom is not funny, but the way it is staged is. That’s what makes so much of ‘The Death of Stalin’ work.
On top of the clever script and the humour, the performances here are genuinely fantastic. The whole ensemble is fully on board with the idea and are dedicated to getting it right. Jason Isaacs is a stand-out as the no nonsense, sarcastic Minister of Defence in a strong Birmingham accent. Jeffrey Tambor channels George Bluth as Malenkov, Stalin’s second in command, a bumbling buffoon who has many of the film’s best lines.
However, Steve Buscemi’s Khruschev and Simon Russell Beale’s Beria are the two stars of the film. The two characters are butting heads through the whole film. While Khrushchev generally has an air of exasperation about him as he becomes dumbfounded at some of the choices the others make, Beria has far more sinister intentions. Beale’s performance, in particular, is terrific. He can make a joke about someone’s stutter in one sentence, before casually sentencing another death two lines later without batting an eye. Beale completely dominates the film and takes the brunt of the heavy lifting on a plot front, and he nails it. Beale’s performance may well end up as one of my favourite male performances of the year.
Sadly though, the film has its drawbacks. It suffers from an issue that so much of modern comedy does. Iannucci doesn’t do anything particularly interesting on the directorial front. He merely points the camera at his characters and has them deliver their lines. ‘The Thick of It’ had a more chaotic feel to them, hand held camera for much of it almost like a documentary, and the chaos from the camera added to the insanity of the story. I truly believe ‘The Death of Stalin’ would have benefited from such an approach, just to add something extra to the film. To put it bluntly, it’s not very interesting to look at.
My second issue lies with the actual humour. When the film is funny, it’s very funny. I do want to watch it again so I can note some of the best lines down. But, there are sections of the film where there aren’t many jokes to speak of, and it gets bogged down in the complicated plot. Of course, it’s a complicated story, so this can be expected, but Iannucci always managed to inject some life into this conversations in ‘Veep’ and ‘The Thick of It’, more off-handed insults, more ridiculous analogies to explain it to someone, more off-the-cuff. It may seem like I am comparing this to his old work a lot, but I feel it’s necessary; it worked so well there, why not make it work here?
My general feelings towards ‘The Death of Stalin’ are far more positive than negative. Writing this, I have felt myself become more positive about it than I initially thought I was. I just think it was lacking that extra special something Iannucci usually has. It was almost there, just not quite. Still, I never thought I’d find myself laughing so hard at a funeral scene in any film, and yet, here we are.