Again another film being released in Canada and the US months after its original release in the UK. With favorable reviews and quite the star-studded cast, this historical, political satire piqued my interest and rose to the top of my watch-list.
Synopsis: In the days following Stalin’s collapse, his core team of ministers tussle for control; some want positive change in the Soviet Union, others have more sinister motives. Their one common trait? They’re all just desperately trying to remain alive.(Metacritic)
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beane, and Jeffrey Tambor
Writer: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Fabien Nury
Director: Armando Iannucci
Rating: 14A (Canada)/R (United States)
Running Time: 106mins
For showtimes and more, check out The Death of Stalin on movietimes.com.
Writer-Director Armando Iannucci has made a name for himself as the king of political satires in the 21st century. With the success of Veep, The Thick of It and its spin-off film In the Loop, he has tackled the background politics and absurdities of the American and British governments so it was only a matter of time until he took on another one of the world’s biggest powers.
Instead of a modern look at another European nation, Iannucci decides to take a snapshot of history and look at the inner workings of the USSR. In this, he follows the story of Joseph Stalin’s (Adrian McLoughlin) inner circle as they lobby for power after their leader dies of a stroke. The ensuing events follow a group of Stalin’s ministers including Nikita Khrushchev (Buscemi), Lavrenti Beria (Beale), Georgy Malenkov (Tambor), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) and Lazar Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley) all vie to take the leadership for themselves no matter the cost.
From beginning to end this film feels like an Iannucci project. Not only does it use morbidly absurd black comedy similar to his past work, but it also imbues the tone of it as well. These characters are not dated bureaucrats who speak in older language, but instead speak with the candor of modern characters from his other works. It helps that Iannucci decides to have his actors speak in their native accents rather than force them to use Russian ones and this only furthers the hilarity of the situation.
The characters in turn are terribly flawed, paranoid people who let their anxieties dictate their actions. While some characters like Khrushchev and Beria decide to start thinking for themselves, others like Malenkov and Molotov continue to try and appease Stalin even in death. The performances across the board are phenomenal as each actor helps fill out this ensemble, but there were four scene stealers: Buscemi, Palin, Rupert Friend as Vasily Stalin and Jason Isaacs as Field Marshal Zhukov. The latter two add curveballs to the mix as their characters create obstacles for the ministers’ plans and each scene is better than the last. It was just wonderful to see Michael Palin in a film once again as it has been far too long and his presence with this style of comedy reminscent of Monty Python.
The interesting part about this film is that the characters and the ongoing subplots of the Russian government’s kill lists tackle the themes of paranoia and Stalinism in this very troubling setting while still managing to make the comedy work. The satirical elements make this film funnier, but its choice of setting ends up being a very real historical look at this gruesome period. Somehow it manages to be a historical drama and political satire at the same time as it sets up a lighthearted, absurd tone over a dark, anxiety-ridden backdrop. The only complaint some people may have is with the slightly abrupt and ambiguous ending, however, it certainly pique the interest for diving more into this vast political history.
Overall, The Death of Stalin is a witty, smartly-written political satire that takes a fascinating look at the inner workings of a past Russian government. The hilarious performances, strong historical themes and Iannucci’s direction help elevate this story past satire into being both an outrageous comedy and dissection of Russian politics. It should not have worked given the topic and yet Iannucci found a way to make something hysterical and memorable.
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