“I know the drill. Smile, shake hands and try not to call them cunts.” – Vasily Stalin, The Death of Stalin (2017)
Satire is difficult to pull off correctly. It has inevitable pitfalls of becoming far too close to reality or diluted to the point where it lacks believability. The Death of Stalin is one of the few satires to be both a partly fictional recount, but also one shrouded in political jabs and throwbacks. It should be no surprise that the creator of In the Loop (2009) has created one of the sharpest and wittiest comedies of 2017. That’s no surprise of course, Armando Iannucci is a very talented man, and he works tirelessly to make this communist comedy work.
I was obviously looking forward to watching this, so much so that I went ahead and bought a DVD copy on the day it released. From what I was aware, this film was basically The Thick of It (2005 – 2012) but with Communism and an ensemble cast. Speaking of which, the ensemble cast dynamic here works really damn well. At first I was a bit thrown by the mixing of American and British actors, but it works surprisingly satisfactorily. You’ve got strong American actors such as Steve Buscemi giving some witty dialogue next to cult British actors such as Paul Whitehouse. It’s a mix that works well throughout the entire film, giving it an edge I never thought possible from surface value alone.
There are some truly standout performances in this film. Aside from the obvious ones I’ll speak of later, Jason Isaacs and Michael Palin provide some excellent supporting roles throughout. Isaacs provides the majority of the action/comedy hybrid scenes and does so in amazing fashion. Michael Palin on the other hand retains the charm from his Monty Python days and delivers some standout lines. Regardless of what he does in this film, it’s a genuine surprise to see him in a film of this comedic calibre. To say the Python team has retired from making comedy movies would be fairly accurate. When was the last time you saw Eric Idle or Eric Idle in a major motion comedy?
To highlight the film blurring fact and fiction, take a look at the opening of the film with Paddy Considine and the theatre performance. I won’t go into the details of it, but if you’ve seen the film, that actually happened. Not to the same hilarity of the film, but like I said earlier, it’s loosely based on true events of the time. Weaving fact and fiction in such a way can sometimes be rather dangerous. Several public criticisms of the film so far have been that the film mocks the lives lost during the time of Stalin’s tyrannical reign. Let me put those rumours to rest, it makes fun of Stalin, not the people. What it does do is capture the fear of people living under Stalin’s rule, but puts a comedic light on it.
The film itself is a focus on just how maddening and hectic the inner circle of Stalin was. Everyone out for themselves, power hungry and sleazy beyond belief. A back and forth rivalry between Buscemi’s Khrushchev and Russell Beale’s Beria is possibly the strongest part of the film. Not just because their performances are standout, but also because of the chemistry between the two. They manage to flicker from rivals to allies at a moments notice. To be fair, everyone in this film manages that, and that’s the beauty of it. Everyone is at each other’s throats one minute and the next they’re staunchly together. There’s a constant change as to who is in the limelight of this film. One minute we’re watching Palin and Buscemi, the next we’re seeing Isaacs and Beale. It works to an incredible extent, allowing us to follow multiple stories that intertwine rather rapidly.
There’s something truly mesmerising about seeing Michael Palin, Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor all sharing the same screen. The Death of Stalin boasts a strong cast and an even stronger script, knocking more than a few jokes out of the park. Quite possibly three of the most well regarded and personal favourites on screen all at once. The beauty of the ensemble cast in effect right there. It’s unfortunate Paddy Considine doesn’t join the mix but there’d be no cognitive sense for him to do so. He’s contained in his own little story and it’s an enjoyable one at that. One that both kickstarts the story but also adds in some early laughs.
As far as the writing and direction goes, it’s evidently phenomenal. There’s nothing that could be considered new and groundbreaking with the direction though. That’s not a problem, it just means there’s nothing to really comment on. There are a couple of nice shots that make the ultimate death of Stalin rather funny. Buscemi and Tambor’s chemistry during this part of the movie is integral and really quite well done. None of that would have been possible without the incredible writing, which is solid throughout.
A film to this extent would always have trouble finding a mainstream audience. Satire is a very fickle thing, something that doesn’t apply to every audience around. For those who like political jokes or at a push Russian history, this may be something to keep your eyes peeled for. It has one of the most talented casts of all, rivaling that of films like Hot Fuzz (2007) and Love Actually (2003). The cast is one of the main selling points to this film and it’s clear as to why that is. Superb writing, solid direction and a strong cast are the three most crucial parts to any film, and The Death of Stalin hits the nail on the head.
The key part of a film to this extent is that it is tasteful. There are absolutely some jokes about the horrific ordeals of Stalin’s U.S.S.R., but that’s where a lot of the comedy comes from. Stalin lies on his death bed, the government needs to call in a doctor, but Stalin had all the doctors sent to the gulag. It’s a bittersweet irony, and this irony carries much of the film. Bolstered by its amazing performances and carefully crafted through Iannucci’s eye for detail, The Death of Stalin swiftly becomes one of the best 21st century comedies of all time.