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Director:  Armando Iannucci

Stars: Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs, Rupert Friend, Andrea Riseborough Paddy Considine, Olga Kurylenko

Released: 20th October 2017 (UK)

Reviewer: Ren Zelen

At the screening I attended there were many amused giggles and guffaws, sometimes punctuated by shrieks of laughter from one particularly lady, who was clearly very entertained. Armando Iannucci’ s film The Death of Stalin is getting good reviews and being hailed as the funniest film of the year. It is indeed, very funny, but it is funny in a very disturbing way.

The film concerns the intrigue and backstabbing (sometimes literal) which took place after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, and has been adapted from Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s French graphic novel series by Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin.

With the demise of Stalin, who had set himself up with god-like power over life and death, everyone is initially terrified of saying that he actually is dead, so inured are his sycophants to being in terror of their lives for one misplaced word. To say that his total control might be over may be taken as traitorous thinking.

In Armando Iannucci’s TV outings, The Thick of It or Veep, if you get something wrong, you must endure humiliation and media ridicule. Make an error under Stalin’s regime, and you get a bullet in the head. There’s a bit more at stake than your reputation – it’s all about staying alive for another day.

So, when Stalin is no longer in charge, panic and prevarication ensues. Euphemistic and magniloquent speeches are given by his ageing dignitaries until it is definitively agreed (by expendable medics, just in case) that he is really, properly, dead. They still can’t quite believe it.

This however, is the starting gun for the canniest operators to go to work. Being someone who is inured to death and violence, sadistic chief of the Secret Police, Beria (Simon Russell Beale) barely misses his stride before going into action to further his own concerns – releasing some of the prisoners left alive, in order to curry favour with the people.

Russell Beale, an accomplished stage actor, makes Beria exemplify the kind of monster the lack of any moral compass engenders. Beria is cold, calculating, sadistic and profoundly evil. He plans to ‘pause’ the regular programme of beatings and torture, so that reformists can be reviled for ideological disloyalty and weakness, and he can take the credit for restoring authority.

Beria’s cruelty and inhumanity is exemplified when he interrupts a conversation between Molotov (Michael Palin) and Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and grinningly insists on again hearing Molotov insist on how his own wife deserved to be taken away and executed for treason, before Beria shocks him by producing her from behind a door – after her long and undeserved sojourn in the bowels of prison.

Michael Palin plays Molotov as a dopey official doing his best to hide a kindly demeanour, resigned to the fact that he has sacrificed his marriage and self-respect in the tenuous hope of staying alive.

Steve Buscemi is Khrushchev, an astute operator masquerading as Stalin’s court-jester. Buscemi sometimes goes as far as to give Khrushchev a hint of the noir-movie gangster. Having these real-life Russians played by English and US actors in their natural accents helps to differentiate characters and the divisions in Russian society. It also serves to create some distance from the grotesque reality.

Jeffrey Tambor delightfully portrays the vain and ineffectual Malenkov, Stalin’s deputy, chosen for his malleability and spinelessness. With Malenkov taking nominal control, the real power struggle between the remaining members of the elite can continue. They are far more concerned with their own interests than those of the people, and scramble around trying to ensure that there is always someone else in position to shoulder blame and that any onlookers are expendable.

Andrea Riseborough as Stalin’s neurotic daughter Svetlana, is particularly amusing, driven to paranoia trying to reign-in her deranged, dead-beat drunk of a brother, Vasily (Rupert Friend).

Entering like a whirlwind, Jason Isaacs plays the Head of the Red Army and ‘war hero’ Georgy Zhukov. Endowing him with the accent of a bellicose northern hardman proves to be an inspired move. Meanwhile, snide comments are interjected throughout by Paul Whitehouse, as the crass Anastas Mikoyan.

Much of the humour in The Death Of Stalin comes from the performances. It’s a superb cast, with each actor giving a stellar turn. There is possibly as much competition to outdo each other onscreen as there was in the Kremlin.

Iannucci’s film is an attack on the corruption, bureaucracy, and self-serving scheming of those who gain power, mocking those who try to maintain their hold by toadying up to their superiors. It may be significant that he has chosen to set his satire during the genocidal purges of Stalinist Russia.

High production values, great sets and locations and excellent comedic performances give the film an expensive-looking slickness. In some ways, it’s a little disquieting to perceive uproariously hilarious comedy in what are horrific historical events. It generates an uncomfortable kind of humour. I myself found The Death Of Stalin very entertaining, but in a horror-comedy kind of way.

The film has been described by some critics as ‘all too believable’, well yes, that’s because although it is hugely absurd and crazy, it’s barely fictional – these things happened much as the film sets them out, with some license to broaden the quirks of the characters for comic effect. The truth is that Stalin was an unbalanced, dysfunctional product of the Russian socialist revolution and responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people – almost twice as many as Hitler.

My smile during the film was rather of the bitter variety, as my grandparents managed escape after being left to starve in Stalin’s Gulag, and some of their friends had been on his countless ‘lists’.

The laughter in the cinema underlines the fortunate detachment most viewers experience while watching the movie, lucky enough never to have lived under a reign of terror. The closest some may come to imagining how odd this humour is, is by imagining a scenario in which, during the finale of ‘Dad’s Army’, Warmington-on Sea is overrun by the Soviet Army and the loveable characters are taken away, brutally tortured and shot.

It may be worth remembering that for some viewers, The Death of Stalin is not entirely fictional, and not merely an ‘enjoyable political romp’.

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2017 All rights reserved.