For a film centred around the untimely demise of one of history’s most notorious dictators, Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin does a surprisingly good job of presenting the violence-ridden power struggle as something of a Shakespearean farce. The story itself is a simple one: a leader dies suddenly, and competitors jostle to take his place. Of course, being set in the former Soviet Union, where the absurd and the macabre were inextricably linked, makes it fertile ground for anyone wishing to enjoy a black comedy.
The film combines the political machinations of House of Cards with the sheer brutality of Game of Thrones, resulting in an engrossing plot that feels grounded in reality, whilst simultaneously embracing the sheer ludicrousness of the situation. This approach defines the entire tone of the film, for, despite the historical context, The Death of Stalin is undoubtedly a character drama.
“The roles they portray are campy caricatures”
The infamously merciless USSR merely serves as a backdrop to the perpetual bickering and double-dealing of the leads, who prove that truly iconic performances can emerge when you put a group of B-List actors in a room, and just tell them to have fun. The roles they portray are campy caricatures of their historical counterparts, simultaneously making them hilarious for history buffs, as well as being easily identifiable for those who are not overly familiar with the period.
“It is Jason Isaac’s General Zhukov that steals every scene”
The main players can all be summed up in a few words; Khrushchev, the closest this film comes to having a protagonist, is shrewd and ambitious. Beria, his constant foil, is ruthless and sinister. Malenkov is bumbling, Zhukov is bombastic, and Vasily is an imbecile. Naturally, then, it is when all these characters are together in a scene that the film is at its best; every line of dialogue is an attempt by the character to steal the spotlight, resulting in a constant build-up of energy the longer each scene goes on. And, whilst all the actors have their moments to shine, it is Jason Isaac’s General Zhukov that steals every scene he’s a part of.
“Every character has a quotable line attributed to them”
Known for playing more traditionally villainous roles (my inner nerd whimpered slightly when I found out he’s the man who plays Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter series), he enters the film midway through, in his own words, “like a big, swinging d***”; a simile that is as accurate as it is crude. Coupled with Iannucci’s characteristically sharp dialogue, every character has a quotable line attributed to them, be it a sarcastic quip, a preposterous boast, or some of the best insults ever put to film. I won’t ruin them for you here; they’re best heard being spat straight out of Michael Palin’s mouth at his unsuspecting target.
“The film’s tone is not quite as focused”
However, whilst the characters themselves are fully realised, the film’s tone is not quite as focused. Yes, it is a comedy, there’s no doubt about that. But dotted throughout are instances of true barbarity that simply don’t quite fit in with the rest of the film.
For example, a scene where a group of civilians are gunned down for no good reason is immediately followed by a ludicrous argument amongst the main characters about who to scapegoat in response. This also makes one of the final scenes, the brutal execution of a principal character, a little less shocking; we’ve already been presented with worse. Fortunately, these instances a few and far between, but just hold the film back from achieving comedic perfection.
“This isn’t a film made for profit. This is a film made for fun”
Overall, if you are a fan of classic comedies, The Death of Stalin is a must-see. It’s rare to see a film in which the cast are so obviously having the time of their lives, which makes it impossible not to be entertained by their performances. This isn’t a film made for profit. This is a film made for fun. And, by Lenin’s mummified corpse, is it fun.
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