OnScreen Review: "The Death of Stalin"

Ken Jones

  • Chief Film Critic

One of my most anticipated films of 2018 was The Death of Stalin. Adapted from a French graphic novel, it is directed by Armando Iannucci. Iannucci is responsible for some of the funniest political satire of the 21st century in the form of the BBC series The Thick of It, the spin-off movie In the Loop, and the HBO series Veep. These satires are biting, critical, and hysterical. It has been on my radar since early 2017 when I first heard of it and was pleased to discover it was finally getting a spring theatrical release here in the US. Unfortunately, the film failed to live up to my high expectations.

The film is loaded with a formidable cast (none of whom is, thankfully, attempting a Russian accent), but mostly centers around four central figures who factor into the power struggle that follows the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1953: Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi). These men are friends and friends of Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), but once Stalin dies, the scheming on who replaces Stalin as the figurehead and leader of the party begins in earnest, mainly Khrushchev and Beria. Beria is someone who seems to have the upper hand behind the scenes because he oversees the secret police apparatus, the NKVD. However, Khrushchev is also angling for power and Malenkov is initially the de facto person to assume power from Stalin.

Stalin is someone who was known for his purges, rounding up people in the dead of night and having them sent to gulags, interrogated, tortured, or executed. Even some of his friends and close advisors were dispatched of because of his paranoia. It’s estimated that the number of attributable deaths to Stalin is wide-ranging, but in the millions or tens of millions. The fear this caused in the citizenry is depicted quite humorously in the opening scene where a concert is being broadcast over the radio and Stalin calls the radio station asking for a recording of the performance. The radio station attendant, Comrade Andreyev (Paddy Considine) is panicked from the initial phone call indicating that Joseph Stalin wants him to call back in 15 minutes (was it 15 minutes from what Stalin called or when he hung up? What time did he even answer the phone?), and goes into full on scramble mode when he realizes that the performance was not even recorded and must gather the musicians back up to perform it again, rounding up a new conductor in the dead of night (which coincides with an actual government round-up), and bribing the pianist (Olga Kurylenko) to play against her wishes because she is avowed anti-Stalinist. Considine pulls off the manic desperation of his potentially deadly situation with perfect comedic timing and delivery, one of the highlights of the film.

For the most part, though, the film revolves around the various progressions from Stalin’s death to his funeral and the four people angling for power and mining the circumstances for absurdity and satire. This involves meetings where they discuss who gets stuck planning the funeral (a job nobody wants to be stuck with); managing Stalin’s two adult children, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend); and countless private conversations that Khrushchev and Beria have trying to win Molotov’s support and convince Malenkov that the other is not to be trusted. Some of it is truly inspired farcical stuff, such as when Buscemi attempts to switch standing positions with Tambor without creating a scene as the four of them stand around Stalin’s body as he lays in state and citizens pass through.

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One of Iannucci’s strongest talents for political satire is the sharp, scathing dialogue that comes out of his characters mouths, perhaps most famously from Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It and In the Loop. That biting dialogue is pervasive and more diffuse in Veep, but Tucker is his greatest foul-mouthed creation. The closest Iannucci comes to having a Malcolm Tucker type here is the most bombastic Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov, commander of the Soviet army and decorated war hero who gets some of the best lines in his limited screen time and is eager to drink and all too willing to participate in a power struggle.

Still, despite a strong cast and a story that is perfectly primed for satire, I found myself more amused than outright laughing at what was transpiring on screen. I could appreciate and recognize the satire and always understood what was happening and why it was satirical. The technical execution of the satire was perfect, but the substance of the satire was lacking. In the Loop and Veep have left me in stitches whereas The Death of Stalin only elicited a few outright chuckles from me and mostly left me with a small grin on my face and not much more. It doesn’t help that the delicate balance of the subject matter is incredibly difficult to pull off. I am someone who loves dark comedies, but the tone in this film just did not sit right with me. There is comedy to be mined in the succession of a murderous political leader like Stalin and the bumbling in trying to fill that power vacuum, but there is a lot of sobering subject matter here as well, including disturbing sexual abuse by Beria.

The Death of Stalin has received nearly universal acclaim, and Iannucci is a director whose previous work I greatly admire. It’s rare that my experience with a highly reviewed film, especially a comedy, is so out of step with what others apparently experienced, but it seems to be the case here. I found the laughs too few and far between and the satire, while expertly executed in form, lacking overall. It’s possible that a second or third viewing will change my opinion; I remember thinking Anchorman wasn’t all that funny the first time I saw it, and then found it increasingly hilarious with each subsequent viewing. I thought it had the potential to be the funniest film of the year, but for now it stands as my biggest disappointment of the year.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars