From the mind of Veep creator Armando Iannucci comes The Death of Stalin, a pitch black comedy about the days following the demise of the Soviet dictator. However, is it even possible to pull laughs out of the tale of a bunch of murderous bureaucrats jockeying for power?
Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) has suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and the Soviet Central Committee comes together to determine what to do next and who will take his place as the leader of the Soviet Union. The major string-pullers are the head of the NKVD—secret police—Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and Moscow Party Head Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi). Beria hopes to use Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) as a puppet, while Khrushchev tries to get the rest of the Committee on his side. Who will come out on top? (If you know your history, you already know the answer).
With The Death of Stalin, Iannucci has delivered a biting political satire that is sadly as relevant today as it would have been back in the 1950s when all of this occurred. There are several laugh out loud moments throughout, as Stalin’s subordinates come across much like a bunch of hapless boobs as they try to crawl over each other to claim power. However, there is also a disquieting air through the film as you are repeatedly reminded that these were evil men who would murder, coerce, and torture people at the drop of a hat. Those two tones clash a bit, so anyone expecting the uproarious nature of Veep may be a bit disappointed in the end. Iannucci also makes an interesting choice in having none of the mostly British cast adopt any Russian accents. So, most of the players perform in their normal voices. It adds to the comedic elements of the film, but at the same time, it takes you out of the film here and there. The major events play out as history remembers them and what you’re left with is an absurd, morbid, often funny re-telling of a major chapter in the world’s history.
The cast is absolutely stellar. While McLoughlin sounds nothing like Stalin would have sounded, he absolutely looks the part. Buscemi is great as always as the scheming Khrushchev. Throughout much of the film, he come across as an almost George Costanza-like figure who is constantly being undermined by those around him. However, once the fantastic Jason Isaacs arrives on the scene as Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov and allies himself with Khrushchev, we start to see the crafty future leader take form. Tambor is also incredible as Malenkov, as he’s always one step behind the schemers and trying to live up to what Stalin would have wanted. A lot of the comedy comes from his performance. Michael Palin is also in fine form as Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, who goes from the chopping block to power player over the course of the film. Olga Kurylenko plays a key role as a pianist who opposes Stalin, while Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend play Stalin’s children, Svetlana and Vasily.
Overall, I enjoyed The Death of Stalin, but I have to admit that I was expecting something far more comedic than I got. That’s not necessarily the fault of the filmmakers—this is not a very funny story—but it’s kind of how the film has been marketed and the pedigree of Iannucci’s other works would definitely lead audience members to believe they might be getting Soviet Veep. But, if you like dark comedies and can temper your expectations, you should thoroughly enjoy The Death of Stalin.