Early on in Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) barges into the apartment of Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin). He informs Molotov that Stalin (Adrian McLaughlin) is dead and plans to release Molotov’s wife, who’s been suffering in captivity at the hands of the sadistic Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale). Despite the fact that Khrushchev screams into Molotov’s face that “Stalin is dead,” Molotov remains loyal to the ex-Despot and maintains that his wife is a “traitor” and a “parasite.” Just as Molotov is smearing his dearly beloved out of respect for Stalin, Beria himself strolls into Molotov’s dwellings accompanied by Molotov’s wife, safe and sound (in a way). This scene is one of the many standout moments that mark The Death of Stalin as one of the funniest, sharpest, and darkest comedies of the last several decades. I haven’t consistently laughed throughout an entire film in the cinema since…The Grand Budapest Hotel? The Guard? Four Lions?
The stroke that ultimately struck Stalin dead occurs towards the beginning of the film. Naturally, a doctor is needed. Unfortunately, all of the Soviet Union’s finest doctors are either dead or rotting away in a gulag because Stalin believed they were all trying to poison him. As a result, the only remaining doctors are rounded up — or literally picked up off the streets in one case — to examine him. While all this transpires, Stalin’s closest minions, from Khrushchev to Beria to Deputy Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), are already plotting to usurp each other to rise to the rank of Stalin’s successor. However, there’s always the possibility that Comrade Stalin will suddenly wake up, recover, and liquidate them from existence, as he was wont to do.
If this story were told as an Oscar-bait® drama, The Death of Stalin would be unwatchably grim. The fact that Iannucci manages to make a film this uproariously funny from beginning to end about Stalin’s goons is a stroke of genius. Further, to avoid that most onerous and patronizing of Hollywood cliches, Iannucci allows every actor to speak in their natural speaking voices, the one glorious exception being Jason Isaacs playing General Zhukov as a Yorkshireman. His performance is a riotous riff on his needlessly psychotic Redcoat in the unintentionally hysterical Mel Gibson vehicle The Patriot, and his performance is one of the major standouts in this extraordinary cast.
Partly thanks to the lack of Hollywood “foreign” accents, all of the performances feel real; nobody is “acting funny” despite the petty squabbling and pervasive murders in the background. Andrea Riseborough as Stalin’s savvy daughter Svetlana is particularly powerful in keeping the comedy grounded in the grim realities of the dictatorship, while Olga Kurylenko is excellent as Soviet pianist Maria Yudina, who stands stoically in the face of this dreadful regime. As expected, Michael Palin is just as hilarious as he was in the halcyon days of Monty Python. Casting him as Molotov in the first place reminded me of something John Cleese once said: that Michael Palin is so “lovable” that “it wouldn’t matter if you cast him as [Nazi Party Chief] Martin Bormann.” Indeed, it’s difficult not to feel sympathy for Palin’s Molotov, yet his performance also recalls the darkness in his extraordinary work in Brazil and A Fish Called Wanda.
But it is Simon Russell Beale as Beria who leaves the strongest impression. I defy of the Academy-Award® nominated actors of this past year, including Mr. Day-Lewis (no offense Hungry Boy), to pull off Beale’s harrowing yet hilarious portrayal of one of Stalin’s most despicable henchmen. Beale’s Beria should go down in cinematic history as one of the best villains of the movies. In fact, I’d like to launch a Kickstarter to crowdfund his Oscar campaign right now. If you’re interested in sorting out the boring details, please inquire below.
As a comedy writer, Armando Iannucci has delivered some of the finest and funniest comedy shows you’ll ever see, among them The Day Today, I’m Alan Partridge, The Thick of It, and more recently, Veep. As a film director, though, Iannucci has developed his craft significantly since his debut feature In the Loop, a spin-off of The Thick of It. Iannucci makes tremendous use of location despite limited resources, and he feels more confident with composition and framing. With his second feature, Iannucci has staked his claim as one of the few genuinely great comedy directors working in cinema.
That the poster refers to the film as “a comedy of terrors” is apt because it is precisely this perfect balance of horror and humor that makes The Death of Stalin such an exhilarating and entertaining experience; Christopher Willis’ superb score adds an extra layer of menace to the proceedings. Just when you think Iannucci might step over the line, he pulls back. Just when you think he’s going to cop out, he goes all in. At no point are the genuine horrors of the Stalinist regime downplayed or ridiculed. What is mocked, however, is the abject insanity of these duplicitous goons vying for their slice of the post-Stalinist pie like a drove of pigs diving into a toxic trough. (Minor Spoilers Ahead) Perhaps the most chilling example involves Beria’s impromptu trial for a variety of heinous crimes. Wisely, Iannucci doesn’t play the scene for laughs. In fact, the audience — all howling along with me throughout — was mostly silent during this moment. If any humor is to be derived from this scene, it’s in watching these moral cowards acting shocked, shocked that Lavrenti Beria was the psychotic scumbag they all knew he was.
Humor this dark will never appeal to everyone. After all, I still see the occasional article questioning the “good taste” of Mel Brooks’ 1968 classic The Producers, a satirical masterpiece that finds humor not in the atrocities of the Nazis but in the madness that drove them in the first place. However, I’ve always remained steadfast in my belief that there is tremendous to be had in dark humor when it’s executed properly. It’s difficult to keep one’s head above water when every new headline feels like another hole blasting through the rusted iron of the sinking Titanic. Thus, we need comedies like The Death of Stalin now more than ever. To hell with The Interview; this is how you make fun of dictators. If you can’t laugh at the perpetual of the global powers-that-be, then what the hell can we laugh at?
In short, this film is so funny that Vladimir Putin banned it. Arise, mass consumers, and make The Death of Stalin the hit it deserves to be!
Currently playing in select cities, supposedly to expand but I don’t need to remind you of the state of movie theaters in 2018. Ask your theatres if they’re not showing it!