What it’s about: Josef Stalin is the political leader of the powerful Soviet Union. His strong rule has inspired fear and hatred among his citizens and is beloved by those in his inner circle. When Stalin unexpectedly suffers a cerebral hemorrhage, it sets his closest advisors off to position themselves [rather awkwardly] to take his place on the red throne. The small committee including Nikita Khrushchev [Steve Buscemi], Georgy Malenkov [Jeffrey Tambor], Lavrenti Beria [Simon Russell Beale] vie for power through underhanded dealings, backstabbing tactics, and the rule of bureaucracy. And all while preparing a celebratory funeral for their former leader and dealing with the repercussions of his sudden death.
Anyone who has seen the work of Armando Iannucci [VEEP, The Thick of It, In the Loop] should know what to expect here. The Death of Stalin isn’t the pinnacle of his specific brand of comedy, but it shows some real progress as a film director and the interesting twist of real historical events.
Those familiar with the writer-director know, too, that his work isn’t about what it is about but how it is about it. The Death of Stalin has a specific narrative. In fact, it is a very defined one based on constitutional procedure -- intertitles break the film into sections from the rules to follow when the figure in power dies. But the appeal of this film is the strange, absurd, buffoonish, hysterical moments and interactions of the ensemble cast.
No one understands the ridiculousness of government better than Iannucci, though this is a much more difficult subject to tackle. It is one thing to mock fictional leaders of modern times but to portray political monsters is a challenge. And because of that, The Death of Stalin is incredibly dark. As we see innocent people exiled or led to their deaths, we need to laugh at the in-fighting of those signing the documents that makes those decisions happen.
In some ways, when the comedy works, this heightens the level of absurdity, making the film more biting and silly at the same time. Seeing a group of dignified and powerful men struggling to lift Stalin from the ground in a pool of his own piss and then arguing over how all the “good doctors” have been killed or imprisoned back-to-back is the kind of juxtaposition that fills The Death of Stalin.
The tone of the film only works because it is brilliant in its mix of subtlety and extended lowbrow visual gags. Another example: directly following the procession of cars all trying to get in the first position, creating a comical logjam, is a quick glimpse of Stalin look-alikes [possibly his official body doubles] all being led to be shot.
Like all of Iannucci’s work, the comedic power is in the ensemble. Everyone gets to be funny, from the leading characters to the one-line extras. Buscemi and Simon Russell Beale are the highlights as the two committee members dueling most directly. Michael Palin and Paddy Considine come in for small but memorable roles. Three performers who aren’t necessarily associated with comedy steal the show, however: Jason Isaacs as the bold leader of the red military and Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend as Stalin’s unhinged children.
Because of the historical setting, this is the most formally cinematic work in Iannucci’s filmography. Iannucci works most in interiors, which is also true of The Death of Stalin, but the decadence of the Russian architecture is beautiful. There is also much more focus on camerawork, shot selection, and shot length. The ensemble scenes aren’t edited to death.
What is perhaps most surprising about the film, though, is how rousing and dramatic its climax is. When one member of the central committee wins over his rival, the eventual ousting quickly shifts the tone to something quite frightening. For anyone who may be turned off by the mockery of real dangerous people, this conclusion adds something real to the stakes. It is abrupt and unexpected, completely took me off guard. But it works fairly seamlessly. No matter how much the film ridicules these characters, even as it reduces them to childish imbeciles, it doesn’t forget that they were monsters.