This film, which you will hopefully have gathered from the title, is about Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, where he died shortly after suffering a heart attack. ‘The Death of Stalin’ briefly depicts the last few days of Stalin’s life, before further exploring the effect this had on his cabinet, which is to say, total, hilarious, chaos.
Over the years there have been countless documentaries, books, textbooks, and so on documenting the brutality of Stalin’s regime, of communist Russia, and of the events following Stalin’s death. I, like many others, studied this period of history at school, and remember it being a distinctly dark period owing to the political assassinations, the millions of arrests and executions, and the abject poverty experienced by the working class. So, to turn such a period of history into an intelligent dark satire really does require immense skill and tactfulness.
‘The Death of Stalin’ is different, for instead of casting either Russian actors, or hiring non-Russian actors who put on Russian accents, the former being preferable, the director, Armando Iannucci has hired a cast of American/British actors, and allowed them to keep their native accents. This creates quite a cultural mix, Nikita Khrushchev is played by the American actor Steve Buscemi, Laverntiy Beria is played by British actor Simon Russell Beale and General Zhukov is played by Jason Isaacs who comes complete with a strong northern accent. The effect is simply brilliant, and really adds to the comedic appeal of the piece. Yet not once do you forget where the film is set owing to the marvellous costume and set design, and of course, the use of comrade when spoken with a western accent does help somewhat.
There is a rather unnerving feeling that emanates from this film, one that never quite leaves you, because although it is brilliantly written, this is the man who wrote ‘The Thick of It’ and ‘Veep’ after all. The underlining tension is always there, like an additional character. It speaks to the brilliance of the film that Iannucci has created a film that at times is so absolutely hilarious, with Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs and Paul Whitehouse in particular on formidably funny form, and yet the abject horror of what life was like in those times is never too far away. It really is a fine line, and an incredible talent, to create satire from darkness and yet never to insult, undermine or make light of what was a horrendous time. I will be seeing this again when it arrives on DVD, if only to relax into the experience more.
The rhythm of the film is fantastic, with what I can only assume to be a semi-improvisational script, one that expertly blends dark satire with political tension. Throughout the film, there are some of the most genuinely funny moments I have seen in a film for some time, evidenced by the entire cinema bent over in laughter, in fact just remembering these moments is making me laugh.
Now, as I previously mentioned, this all feels like a rather odd comment to make on such a dark subject matter. Yet unlike other historical films such as say, ‘Child 44’, or ‘Dunkirk’, both of which are utterly fantastic and more importantly worthy films to watch, I can’t say I felt the greatest urge to go back and re-watch them immediately. Now, granted the approach to ‘The Death of Stalin’ and ‘Dunkirk’ are entirely different. However, as one who enjoys watching these historical dramas, there is a sigh of relief to watch something that is both historically interesting, wonderfully performed and makes one laugh, without feeling like you have just run an emotional marathon in the process.
OVERALL **** I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when took my seat, and finding the words to accurately describe the film still alludes me to an extent. What I witnessed, was humor, intelligence, fantastic acting, authentic costume and sets, and tactfulness, but more importantly a film I would return to repeatedly.
RECOMMENDATION – I would assume that most would steer clear of this film as ‘The Death of Stalin’ isn’t exactly the sexiest of titles. Nor would I imagine this to be a particularly appealing period to most. However, I would ask you to leave all reservations at the door and step forward into something unique, brilliant and utterly hilarious.