Adapted from the French graphic novel of the same name and directed by Armando Iannucci, The Death of Stalin explores the chaotic days that followed Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 and how the members of his central committee conspired and fought against each other to order to advance their own interests.
I have to admit that I was a little worried at the thought of watching an Armando Iannucci film, having never really seen The Thick of It or In The Loop and also not exactly being a fan of political satire – way above my intelligence level! Audience members who are a fan of Iannucci’s biting brand of satirical comedy and/or have a working knowledge of Stalin-era Soviet history will undoubtedly get the most out of this film but for me, a relative layman, The Death of Stalin still works wonders because it’s a very funny film and has plenty of witty, clever writing, hilarious one-liners, some divine physical comedy and an ensemble cast who are really game for a laugh and give the film plenty of energy.
The funniest parts of the film are undoubtedly the scenes where Stalin’s central committee interact, bounce insults off each other and generally act like clueless kids; there’s no two ways about it, it’s just fun to watch a group of grown men bickering, plotting to outdo each other and laying on some brilliant zingers and insults, using a very generous amount of f-bombs, delivered in a whole host of regional accents (all of the actors speak in their natural accents). The actors also engage in some wonderful physical comedy, most noticeably when they discover Stalin’s body and all have to bumblingly carry him to his bed as well as a hilarious moment that involves switching places at a funeral (“make it look like part of the ceremony!”).
The Death of Stalin has an excellent ensemble cast and they all throw themselves into their roles with great humour and aplomb. Taking something of a leading role as Nikita Khrushchev, Steve Buscemi nails most every line that he’s given, dishing out the zingers and f-bombs flawlessly and mastering the physical comedy like a pro. The other cast members who make up the central committee (Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin and Paul Whitehouse being chief among them) have great chemistry and their constant bickering, plotting and racing to get ahead is skilfully done with great humour. Elsewhere, Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend shine as Stalin’s children, Adrian McLoughlin has a brief but memorable role as the foul-mouthed Stalin, and a Northern-accented Jason Isaacs is great as a brash, bullish brute of a General.
The comedy does dry up towards the end though as the film tends to get a little bit more serious, focusing on the historical events a bit more. I have to admit that I don’t find this area of history particularly interesting so with my knowledge of Soviet history sadly lacking, coupled with the fact that it’s plum hard to remember all the Russian character names, it’s sometimes difficult to figure out just what’s going on; as I say, fans of political satire will surely get the most out of the film. The Death of Stalin attempts to be both somewhat educational and comedic but these two elements seem at odds with each other throughout the film and although I ended up a tad more enlightened than I was before, at the end of the day it’s the fun performances and the brilliant verbal/physical comedy that’s the biggest part of the film’s appeal.