Film Review ‘Death of Stalin’

The Death of Stalin (2017), directed by Armando Iannucci

The Death of Stalin is a satirical romp of stellar magnitude. Its outstanding cast, protracted storyline and sparking dialogue together compellingly depict the farcical chaos of a political and social situation which takes place in the Soviet Union within the time leading up to, during and following Josef Stalin’s death in 1953.

Satirical humour interjects throughout the film, being riotously overt or disturbingly, wryly accurate, in turn. In masterfully representing cleverly crafted work within its genre, the film reveals more serious parallels and subtexts. Both the outrageous humour and tragedy of events depicted, although sitting uncomfortably alongside each other, are thus equally unavoidable.

The satirical genre traditionally reveals sometimes obscene, usually discordant incongruity at individual and collective levels. The Death of Stalin through its smart use of grotesque wit, thus, unquestionably reflects the true horror of dehumanisation, killings and violent oppression which existed in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s reign as premier of the Soviet Union.

The film’s context of historical realism in relation to the secret police, the NKVD’s 1952-53 Doctors’ Plot plus the regime’s Great Terror and Great Purge enactments against political and religious dissidents is no coincidence. Within this context, whilst Steve Buscemi’s Kruschev is portrayed as working frantically to ensure that the politburo’s collective story fits, Simon Russell Beale’s Beria plots to bring himself to power as an apparently liberating force. In the process, Beria threatens to expose his NKVD colleagues as brutal arbiters in the imprisonment, torture and execution of innocent people.

Armando Iannucci’s intentionally truncated screenplay and direction maintains his audience’s and his players’ unwavering attention. In one interview with Iannucci (theguardian.com), he describes the timeline plan within the action being a main feature which he used to speed up pace compared with Nury and Robins’ graphic novel, upon which the film is based. He, thus, directs absolute focus upon the grim, ludicrous irony of somewhat microcosmic power struggles within Stalin’s internal politburo.

Stalin’s funeral, which Buscemi’s Krushchev is tasked with organising by his colleagues in the film, represents a significant peak in satirical alchemy. Heavily drizzled with grimly hilarious nuances which display the need of Stalin’s chaotic politburo to put on an acceptably organised public face, the funeral scene also represents the zenith of Iannucci’s own idea of climactic farce to his own audience.

However, it is the appearance of Jason Isaacs’ Zukhov which delivers with raucous full force. In the knowledge that Zhukov was admired by Stalin for his ‘straightforward qualities’, Isaacs chose to vitalise the role through using a blunt Yorkshire accent. Stating that he was simply using an idea for portraying Zhukov’s straightforward character, the actor commented: I was talking to David Cameron and when I told him what I was doing, he could barely contain his surprise and horror and joy at how the film’s story paralleled exactly what was going on in Downing Street’ (theguardian.com). Current audiences’ collective living memory could, subliminally or otherwise, also consider the irony that most of this pugnacious Yorkshire character’s fury is directed not at a member of the general public who throws eggs, but at people who were guilty of horrific atrocities against thousands of their own countrymen.

Earlier in the film, Paddy Considine’s Andryev, who is consciously aware that organised terror drives the need to comply with Stalin’s every wish, frantically meets his leader’s demands to receive a recording of a particular Mozart concerto. In doing so, Considine’s organised yet wantonly hapless Andreyev is unable to avoid becoming first in a chain of events which lead to the dictator’s practically unintentional demise. The harassed Andryev is touchingly portrayed as being both unintentionally funny and judgementally flawed.

By comparison, Michael Palin as Molotov (whom Churchill thought to have ‘outstanding ability and cold-blooded ruthlessness’) portrays a ridiculous character whose true abilities lay in complying with the stupefying yet cunning, ruthless dictatorship. Similarly, Rupert Friend’s hilariously ineffectual Vasily Stalin is seen to fail spectacularly in achieving the kudos afforded to their deceased head of state.

The film’s dialogue and action distinctly override any lack of geographical precision, with regard to such issues as perfected Russian accents. The satirically ludicrous tone is steadily maintained through creative genius. The Death of Stalin is a must-see film for the thinking world and its human generations.  

Jackie Bergson has worked in the voluntary sector and commercial business development in technology and creative sectors. Educated in and living in Glasgow, her political and social views chime left-of-centre.

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