The Death of Stalin (2017) – Cinema Review

Y/N? Yes.

Director: Armando Iannucci

Stars: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Andrew Riseborough, Michael Palin, Olga Kurylenko & Adrian McLoughlin.

Review by Damocles

Ensemble Cast, Dark Comedy & Modern Historical Setting? This film never puts a single foot wrong.

A rather avid student of history, particularly the modern era, the moment I saw the trailer for this film, I knew I was going to like it.

The Death of Stalin, is a darkly comedic film, that centres around the actions of Stalin’s Committee directly in the aftermath of his death. What ensues is a scathing political dissection of the power struggle that opens after Stalin’s death and an insight into the anxiety that all Russian citizens felt under Stalin’s thumb in the 1950s.

What I particularly liked about this film, was its’ ability to balance something as horrific as Stalinism with darkly comedic dialogue that relies heavily on the strength of the actors’ skills and delivery.

This is a film that doesn’t rely on strong cinematography, nor score, nor costume design, but instead is a pure actor’s film. The Death of Stalin created an environment where the stars are truly allowed to perform and outshine every other element of a film.

None of the cast bothered to try to do a Russian accent, a fact that is now lauded for adding extra comedic value to the film, especially when the dialogue is contrasted with the extremely Soviet sets and accurate uniforms. None of the cast even really look that Russian. But they are all having immense fun on-screen and it is a joy to watch them perform and bring some type of bizarre humanity to these inhuman monsters that history remember them as.

Every single member of the cast, from Jeffrey Tambor’s snivelling and indecisive take on Georgy Malenkov, to Jason Isaacs’ scene stealing turn as the brash and supremely confident Georgy Zhukov, brought their A-game.

But it is the interplay between the unscrupulous and despicable Simon Russell Beale as Laventiy Beria and the more reasonable but still sinister Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev that really creates the film.

Watching these two great actors scheme, plot and slowly develop their characters more and more, as the situation deteriorated was one of the best parts of this film. Much of the film is a showcase about how both men crave the top seat and will do anything to appear genuine and kind-hearted to those who will support them, only to turn on them viciously, moments later when the time is right.

It is this irony that supplies so much of the humour in the film, with both men desperate for power and control over the lesser minds of the committee, resorting to schemes and moves that mirror each other’s low tactics amidst this power vacuum.

I found myself laughing uproariously at some of the ridiculousness of the dialogue that is laden with profanities. So much of it, was bickering and humorous situational observations that seem ridiculous and ludicrous given the extreme nature of the scenario.

Then, moments later, I would be aghast how the cruel nature of the Soviet machine at work, and the depravity showcases by these men in power, and their tone-deaf approach to the situation.

It is this delicate balancing act, of humour and horror that really creates the unique tone of the film.

From a cinematography perspective, the film is shot in a primarily documentary format, with a lot of wonderful fly on the wall attributes that add to the hilarity and shock of what is happening on screen. There is nothing particularly note-worthy though, beyond glory shots of set dressing and surprisingly faithful recreations of Soviet era buildings.

As for the score, there is again, little to really discuss there, with appropriately styled Soviet-esque music playing in the background and always just there to emphasis certain dramatic points. Christopher Willis’ work never soared by the scenes enough to distract, which I personally believe to be a wise move, considering the documentary style that Armando Iannucci chose.

Overall, I had a great time watching an ensemble cast act, plot, connive and bring some humourous humanity to some of history’s greatest evil apparatchik. The film moves along at a great pace, and never overstays it welcome.

As fictional retelling of historical events go … this one is as fun as it gets.

A scene to recall: The glorious slow-motion entrance of Jason Isaac’s Field Marshal Zhukov, as befitting this war hero. What a man.

Apparently, the director had to tone down the sheer number of medals on Zhukov’s chest, because in reality he fielded a lot more on his chest. Reading the career of Field Marshal Zhukov is like realising this man is essentially a Russian Caesar, without the political ambitions.

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