The Watchers

The Watchers

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Review: The Death Of Stalin (UK Cert 15)

You'd never really peg Communism as a source of comedy, would you? When trailers for The Death Of Stalin came out, I really didn't know what to make of it. Is it a piss-take in the vein of Churchill: The Hollywood Years (complete with inaccurate accents)? A revisionist piece of history? A broad farce? But then I saw who it was directed by: Armando Iannucci. The driving force behind The Thick Of It and big screen version In The Loop, and the US sitcom Veep. A man to whom scabrous political satire is practically second nature. As a massive Thick Of It fan, I decided to give it a go. I wasn't disappointed. 

Based on a French comic book by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, The Death Of Stalin follows the last days of the Soviet leader's life and the mayhem that ensued after his death, as various factions within the ruling Politburo jockey for position in the brave new world to come by scheming, plotting and conspiring against one another. These include chief of security Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), acting premier Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and secretary Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi).

The film doesn't shy away from the fact that Stalin's regime was a brutal dictatorship where everyone was at the whim of a raging madman; an early scene, where Stalin demands a recording of a radio broadcast which wasn't made, sees the stage manager (Paddy Considine) frantically trying to get people back in their seats for the concerto to be played again. It's a moment of pure farce, but underlies the message. Similarly, when the decision to allow the trains to run again so people can come and see Stalin lying in state ends in tragedy, the film doesn't gloss over it. You may think that such disparate elements wouldn't work to form a cohesive hole but, for me, it did. The comedy was much needed to lift these darker moments. 

Cast-wise, it's incredibly strong with Simon Russell Beale impressing as the ambitious and sadistic Beria. Buscemi brings his trademark fast-talking wise-guy schtik to Khrushchev to great effect, whilst Tambor is great as the sad-sack and easily swayed Malenkov. Andrea Riseborough gives a wonderful performance as Stalin's daughter Svetlana whilst Rupert Friend is a hoot as Stalin's drunkard son Vasily. There's good support too by Paul Whitehouse as Politburo member Anastas Mikoyan and Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov. Perhaps the funniest performance comes from Jason Isaacs as Red Army chief Georgy Zhukov, complete with broad Yorkshire accent and a take-no-prisoners attitude. Zhukov's support for Khrushchev proves vital in securing Khrushchev's ascendancy- and seals Beria's fate. 

Everyone keeps their own accents, so there are no excruciating faux-Russian accents flying round. This might take a while to get used to, but it doesn't take long. You don't particularly need to know anything specific about Russian history to enjoy the film; everything you need to know is explained. The humour is dark, caustic, and bloody funny. Fans of Iannucci will know what to expect: toe-curling political incompetence, the occasional f-bomb, inordinate amounts of arse-covering, and some exquisitely baroque insults.

I was pleasantly surprised by how funny and how well made The Death Of Stalin is. Definitely one to give a go.

Rating: 4 out of 5


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