Film Review: The Death of StalinFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 18 Oct 2017

As anyone who has seen The Thick of It, its feature length spin off In the Loop, or the US series Veep, will know, writer Armando Iannucci has a certain unique flair for political satire. The thought of him tackling La Mort de Staline, a graphic novel by Fabien Nury dealing with the aftermath of the death of Joseph Stalin, was a promising one.

When Stalin died in 1953, he left behind a power vacuum at the head of the Soviet Union. Iannucci’s film depicts the ensuing struggle for power among the political elite, from Stalin’s son to his heads of state, choosing to approach what in real life was a tremendously fraught and dangerous era with his usual lightness of touch.

It’s not perhaps an obvious period to play for laughs, but the result, for the most part, lives up to the billing. Iannucci extracts humour from potential darkness, and at times plays wonderfully on the idea of political paranoia and infighting.

The film boasts a large and talented ensemble cast playing a roster of real life characters, most of whom Iannucci depicts as either bumbling, bickering fools or, in the case of Simon Russell Beale’s secret police chief Beria, in particular, tyrants desperate for power. Their interactions are the heart of the film, indeed the very point of the film, and there is much enjoyment to be had therein. If there’s a criticism to be levelled at the casting, it’s simply that there are too many talented performers here to feel that we’re getting the most out of them. As a result, some of the supporting characters feel a little undersold, and unable to leave the impression they might have done.

Alongside Beria, the chief conspirators are Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and Nikita Kruschchev (Steve Buscemi), names which will be familiar to anyone with a vague knowledge of Russian history. Malenkov, upon whom the responsibility of stepping into Stalin’s shoes initially falls, is played by Tambor as a man desperately wanting to appear stately and responsible, but in fact displaying neither of these traits, and perennially trapped under the imposing Beria’s finger.

Lingering around behind them is an amusingly pitched performance from Michael Palin as Vyascheslav Molotov, who over the years has been so indoctrinated into Stalin’s regime that he has trouble remembering who he is meant to be fawning over, and what his opinions actually are. There’s also an amusing introduction featuring Paddy Considine that gets things off to a strong start, and a scene-stealing turn from a belligerent Jason Isaacs. Andrea Riseborough, meanwhile, brings an all-too-brief feminine presence to what is otherwise very much a boys club.

Although there’s some great stuff in here poking fun at the inner workings of the government,the film coasts a little towards its final act, which, though still funny, is a bit rushed and dramatically uneven. It feels as if the film is enjoying itself much more when its ensemble is bickering and fighting than when it has to tell the story, which isn’t a criticism as such, but leaves the narrative element of the film feeling a little lukewarm.

Generally, though, The Death of Stalin is an entertaining and often funny film, the  tone of which will be familiar, if not wholly so, to fans of Iannucci’s excellent previous work. It’s not as consistently funny as some of his best output, but well worth a look.

4/5

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