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Review - The Death of Stalin

By midlandsmovies, Feb 24 2018 03:11PM

The Death of Stalin (2017) Dir. Armando Iannucci

Banned in Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan (jagshemash!) British comedian, director and satirist Armando Iannucci jumps into dangerous territory with this new dark comedy about a dictator’s passing and the chaos that subsequently ensues.

The film’s story highlights the brutal regime and power struggles in USSR during Stalin’s death in 1953. Armando Iannucci has pulled together an eclectic cast including comedy heavyweights like Michael Palin (as Vyacheslav Molotov) but has also wisely placed them alongside dramatic actors such as Steve Buscemi and Jason Isaacs to provide the gravitas to make the comedy spikes even funnier.

Stalin himself is hilariously voiced by Adrian McLoughlin with a Guy Ritchie-style cockney gangster vibe not seen so broad since Ralph Fiennes in In Bruges. Whilst strong English accents failed spectacularly in Valkyrie (I couldn’t get past the posh tones of Branagh, Nighy and Stamp for WW2 Nazis) it works well here as a comedy choice.

It begins with Stalin requesting a copy of a live orchestral performance which needs re-staging as no recording was made, ensuring we are introduced to the despot’s brutal rules from the start. We see the unforgiving nature of the regime as citizens do their best to avoid being on Government “enemy” lists which means a certain death.

After becoming incapacitated via a brain haemorrhage, two factions within the Central Committee appear as they attempt to gain control in the absence of power. Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria shuts down Moscow and replaces “enemy” lists with his own, whilst Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov undertakes his own ambitions.

Stalin’s daughter Svetlana is played brilliantly by Andrea Riseborough ensuring the “boy’s club” cast has a large dose of understated drollness. The film also screams Britishness in its tone and jokes. Lines like “where’s the big fella?” and “better watch your steps, son” (both delivered hilariously by The Fast Show’s Paul Whitehouse who gets a huge share of the best lines) are in clear contrast to the Soviet era costumes and soundtrack.

One critic of the film is Samuel Goff who states that “Beria was an odious sadist, but, as a friend put it to me, you wouldn’t make a film of the George W. Bush years that had Donald Rumsfeld personally waterboarding Guantanamo detainees”. To me that imaginary parallel is actually the perfect undermining of the awful oppressive structures in politics. It shows how those in positions of power actually do have blood on their hands through the decisions they’ve made even if not directly responsible for the act personally.

Ignore Goff’s sad “this isn’t historically accurate” and “I don’t find it funny” arguments, as the drama and comedy come together – as unrealistic as it needs to – in order to exaggerate and highlight the absurdities inherent in the horrific reality. Although it’s no way in the same league, it’s thematic siblings include the take-downs of suicide bombers in Chris Morris’ “Four Lions” and the religious conflicts in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”.

As the situation spirals out of control, the committee point fingers of treason and attempt to pin blame on each other as their paranoia spirals. The film's light-heartedness breaks into more overt drama as each member’s true intentions and murderous ambitions are revealed but the director still throws in humorous lines even during the darkest scenes.

Whilst approaching a difficult subject matter, the film’s censorship from public view in certain countries ironically reinforce the claims the film is making about authoritarian and tyrannical governments. And like the best satire, the film approaches the appalling events from a position of farce, from lifting Stalin’s body to the verbal bickering via the ludicrous actions during his funeral. And with an excellent ensemble cast of elderly gents, they deliver a thoughtful dark comedy that works more as Dad’s Army than Red Army.


Midlands Movies Mike

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