VOD film review: The Death of Stalin
James R | On 03, Mar 2018
Director: Armando Iannucci
Cast: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin
Watch The Death of Stalin online in the UK: Netflix UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play / Sky Store
“I have no idea what’s going on.” That’s the sound of Soviet Russia in 1953, when Joseph Stalin dies, leaving chaos and a power vacuum in his wake. Political battles, clueless officials and a constant struggle to work out what’s truth and what’s fiction? It may be Moscow, but this is home turf for Armando Iannucci, the satirical mastermind behind In the Loop and The Thick of It.
Iannucci, who adapts Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel with David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows, sinks his teeth into the dark comedy of it all, nailing the balance between farce and fear: even with Stalin lying cold on the floor, the terror of the dictator’s rule still lingers in the air, something that can be seen playing across each of his deputies’ faces, as they risk speaking their minds freely for the first time. There’s Khrushchev (Buscemi), the neurotic acting general secretary, the ostracised Molotov (Palin), coming back in from the cold, ambitious Beria (Beale), and – in the hot seat of power – the simpering, vain and spineless Malenkov (Tambor).
The cast are impeccable, hesitating over each word as they try to second guess each other’s thoughts and plans; they all want to seize control of the nation, but have no idea whether to uphold Stalin’s system or embrace a revolt against his regime. Their quivering, idiotic cabinet meetings are laugh-out-loud sessions of hands half held up in the air – exactly the kind of meetings you can imagine taking place in our government right now.
That caution isn’t a problem for General Zhukov, though, as the scene-stealing Jason Isaacs barges into the stately affairs with a machine gun and has no problem in barking rebellious instructions. It’s when he’s on screen that things really kick into gear – you get the sense that everyone else is actually just looking for another leader to follow, rather than replace.
The parade of characters comes thick and fast, almost too fast, leaving no room for Andrea Riseborough as Stalin’s daughter to make an impact – Rupert Friend, as his hilariously stricken son (“My father was a warm, might bear and we are his 170 million cubs”), could also do with more screen time. But that’s partly intentional on Iannucci’s part, as he rushes events at a deliberately hectic pace.
The result is almost light-hearted in the way that things skip along, with the English character actors all doing natural Northern accents or their own voices. But from an opening scene involving an orchestra fearfully re-recording a concert (organised by Paddy Considine’s panicking Andreyev), the film embraces the all-too-lethal repercussions of making the wrong move; we see, in no uncertain times, the price of being considered a traitor. That mix of light and dark gives The Death of Stalin a deliciously disturbing edge. Whether it’s because of the far-flung subject matter, or that more sombre streak, though, it’s not quite on a par with In the Loop or The Thick of It – it feels one step too far from the more caustic immediacy of the corridors of Whitehall. In an age of Trump and Brexit, though, the disarray of a tyrannical rule laid bare is a scathingly relevant spectacle that is chilling on multiple levels. The chance to see Michael Palin, veteran of Brazil as well as Monty Python, back in a comic starring role relishing that chaos is the bleak icing on a very black cake.
The Death of Stalin is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.