Movie Reviews: The Death of Stalin (2017)

While it is unlikely many of you have noticed a dearth of reviews lately, my body has decided to continue its yearlong revolt against me and despite seeing this over a week ago, I just haven’t been able to motivate my body to be able to write.  So, apologies if this review is skimping due to the nature of the movie being a week+ old in my memory and my body still not being up to snuff, but it was now or never and The Death of Stalin is worth talking about.

Armando Iannucci got his big break in the US with his film In the Loop, which adapted his British series The Thick of It, a great Bush-era political black comedy which let into his biggest success to date, Veep.  They’re both foul mouthed and dark but most importantly very funny and often walking a fine line as we watch awful people yelling at each other and behave selfishly.  The Death of Stalin is very much in the line of his previous works though it feels more In the Loop than Veep with both films sharing similar plots of two main sides scheming towards a specific goal around a central event (the imminent invasion of Iraq in 2003 in the former film and the death of Joseph Stalin).  It’s the emphasis on the power struggle and politicking as well as the more cynical and unsanitized view of politics that’s made Iannucci’s work feel like a natural descendant of Yes, (Prime) Minister.

The two main plots are set up around Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Laverntiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) decreasingly subtly in the wake of Stalin’s incapacitation and eventual death, competing against each other for power which anyone with a vague knowledge of history already knows who is coming out on top.  Drawn into their plotting is the rest of the Central Committee, portrayed as a bunch of yes men who are left in the wake of all the purges, nominal acting leader Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) who hasn’t the spine to even be a puppet, the worthless Stalin kids who are either an uncontrollable drunk (as played by Rupert Friend) or hopelessly naive (as played by Andrea Riseborough), and a boisterous general who seems to be the only one not afraid of the purges.

These purges form a central aspect of the plot and inform most every decision.  Every word spoken seems to be done so with the knowledge that a wrong one could wind you up on the list for the next one, doctors and important potential allies have been eliminated by it, and much of the humor rests on if you can find humor in them.  Now I love me some dark humor and while I won’t say this goes as far as say Life is Beautiful where Roberto Benigni stupid clowning had no place surrounded by the rest of the material, the film pushes just how dark can be funny even for me at times.  There was something just a bit too real about it that left moments where I think the film was expecting me to laugh feeling flat and it’s just not as funny as his prior works.  That being said, I can’t deny the effectiveness of it and Beale is fantastic as practically a horror villain dripping in cold malice.

The Death of Stalin is a dark film, but it is funny one and if you are into that sort of humor it’s worth checking out.  It looks great and the cast is superb from top to bottom and they even got Michael Palin to show up and prove he’s still wonderful.  The plot seamlessly builds to a satisfying conclusion despite the fact that history has taken out quite a bit of the suspense and it never shies away from the brutality of the subject matter.  It’s just a well-made film in a genre that so rarely sees successful films and that alone is to be appreciated.