The Death of Stalin

THE DEATH OF STALIN. Starring: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambour, Michael Palin, Adrian Mcloughlin, and Olga Kurylenko. Also, Andrea Riseborough and Paddy Considine. Directed by Armando Iannucci. Rated MA 15+. Restricted. (Strong coarse language). 107min.

This Belgian, French, and British, English speaking movie is a political satire based on the 2012 French novel, “La Mort de Staline” by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, and it depicts the power struggles in Russia following the death of Joseph Stalin in March, 1953. The film is inspired loosely by true events. It caused great controversy and was banned in Russia and three other countries. In satirical terms, it depicts Stalin’s last days of rule and the chaos that occurred after his death. It attempts to parody the violent world of 1950’s Russia, and is reputed to be based on happenings that were set in train by Stalin’s untimely demise.

Joseph Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin) collapses in rather unbecoming circumstances after listening to a recorded piano recital, and following his reading of a note from the angry woman pianist, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) saying that he has ruined his mother-country.

Stalin dies, and his death sets in train a series of events that reflect the political ambitions of Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambour), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi). They were all involved in the race to succeed Stalin. Malenkov was expected to take over from Stalin, while Beria and Khrushchev jostled for a more permanent position in succession history. Others, like Molotov tried to decide who they should side with. All this takes place amidst state-authorised tortures and executions - mostly conducted casually in an alarming way.

When the movie was released, Russia condemned it as an “unfriendly act by the British intellectual class”, and part of an “anti-Russian information war” that offended the dignity of the Russian people. It is a biting political satire on the Stalinist era that has been created by the Scottish Writer-Director, Armando Iannucci, who is well known for the cutting political satire that characterised his comedy, “In the Loop” (2009).

The film, by its very nature, deals with dark events that involve significant violence and gruesome happenings. Iannucci cleverly satirises the way in which naked ambition copes with political events that spin out of control. The satire is thoroughly irreverent, as the contenders for power  backstab each other in a race to the top, and Iannucci makes it perfectly clear that nobody seemed to be running the Russian government at all. The film is funny, has some wonderful comic scenarios, and it has many engaging, witty moments.

It is in no way intended as a documentary, and the dialogue and action are farcical in the way they highlight the absurdity of political power. Malenkov took over tentatively after Stalin’s death as President of the Soviet Union and held his position from 1953 to1955, but he is portrayed as no match for the ambition of those around him, and he was soon expelled. Bureaucracy, vanity and ordinariness limit Malenkov, and naked ambition pushes Beria and Khrushchev forward to try to take the reins of power. It was Beria, who then falls victim to Khrushchev. All events are given a murkily comic edge. This is an unusual movie. Its scripting is biting, though a little uneven, and the acting is uniformly excellent, though at times theatrically obvious. The film’s farcical comic tone in Monty Python style sustains the weight of grim historical events, but it is the direction by Iannucci that brings the real impact. Iannucci’s direction is highly original, and he is fearless in who he chooses to target.

Poetic licence with history abounds in this film, but Iannucci’s direction holds its force. There is no doubt that the film looks for black humour in lampooning the history of Russia, and some will be offended by that fact. But this is a frightening comedy of terrors that draws its energy from shocking events, and biting comedy may just be needed at times to display events of that kind.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Madman Entertainment

Released March 29th., 2018


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