As autumnal, seasonal visits to the cinema go, an irreverent dark comedy about the death of former Russian dictator Joseph Stalin isn’t necessarily the sort of thing that I had in mind for these days where the weather is getting colder and the nights are drawing in. However, one name attached to the picture told me all I needed to know about the kind of experience that was in store, that of writer and director Armando Ianucci. With big and small screen credits including the excellent The Thick Of It, In The Loop and Veep, I had the feeling that I was in for one hell of a fun time.
And boy, I wasn’t wrong! The Death Of Stalin provides a zany, cheeky and wonderfully fresh take on the immediate aftermath and power grabbing that ensued upon the death of Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin) in 1953. The narrative follows a cast of high profile Soviet figures including Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) as they come together to assume leadership of the Soviet Union, not all with the same goals and promises in mind.
The first, and most important thing to say is that the film is absolutely hilarious. If you take any enjoyment in the films and shows that I mentioned in the introduction, you will absolutely love The Death Of Stalin. Ianucci possesses the gift of being able to take heavy, layered, complex historical and political context and make it effortlessly accessible to a wider audience. I will admit that my knowledge of the Soviet Union is minimal at best, but this did not stop me from fully enjoying the picture as it guides you in a fast paced, user friendly way that feels neither patronising nor excessive. A few captions and character titles are used sparingly to set everybody in their place, and as a result the narrative is free to flow in such a natural, engaging and eccentric manner that you almost forget you are watching a depiction (of sorts) of a real life, world altering event.
However, don’t let this review fool you in to thinking that The Death Of Stalin is as breezy and quirky as a typical episode of Veep, because the film isn’t afraid to include some of the darker, more sinister themes affecting both the general time period and the individuals involved. Side plots involving systematic murder and child abuse are peppered throughout the narrative, forcing the audience to dig deep and connect with the true horror of events that are being presented in the form of witty, razor sharp banter. It’s testament to the genius of Ianucci and the quality of all involved with the picture that both ends of the spectrum can be explored so deftly. It never feels like there is a forced change in tone, but rather that the filmmakers have created an atmosphere in which humorously bad self portraits and literal child rape can be discussed in succession whilst still maintaining a charismatic and genuinely enjoyable tone. It might sound jarring, and that is because it is, but in the absolutely best and most interesting kinds of ways.
Of course, the premise and tone of a film cannot carry it alone, and the large, richly talented cast of actors help to make The Death Of Stalin the oddball joy that it is. Jeffrey Tambor gives a weirdly vulnerable and charming performance as second in command Georgy Malenkov. I’ve become a huge fan of Tambor in recent years thanks to his stellar work on Amazon’s Transparent, and he continues to exude a charismatic charm that makes all of his character weirdly engaging in one way or another. Steve Buscemi is somebody you would never have guessed would be a perfect Nikita Khrushchev, but hey, it’s 2017 and much weirder political things have happened! Buscemi achieves a rare feat of being so distinctly himself yet so convincingly Khrushchev, and though this may be thanks to the zany nature of the film, having seen it I can’t imagine anybody else in the role.
Two further stand out performances are given by Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria and Jason Isaacs as Georgy Zhukov, playing two very different characters with different secrets and motivations. Russell Beale gives us the closest thing to a sinister villain in the piece and Isaacs provides some of the broader, unrefined humour as a foul mouthed, no nonsense army general, both actors performing to memorable effect.
The decision to let the actors use their own accents rather than some sort of awkward Russian lilt proves not only to be an inspired choice in terms of comedy, but it also seems to give the performers a sense of freedom that really aids proceedings. Though I’m unsure how a choice like this would go in something like a straight drama, in the realms of the quirky dark comedy, it works a treat.
Overall, The Death Of Stalin is a film that has a much broader appeal than many might think. Like I said, any fan of Armando Ianucci will be a fan of this, but if you’re somebody who usually plays it safe when it comes to historical dramas and biopics, why not give this a try? Not only will you learn something, but you will learn it in a completely fresh and infinitely fun way. If I can be informed and entertained at the same time, then I’m a happy popcorn eater.