Set in Moscow’s ornate salons, and shadowy corners halls of power, director Armando Iannucci’s (Alan Partridge, The Thick of It, Veep) latest film, ‘The Death of Stalin’ is a quirky send up of Russian politics. Think Mel Brooks meets the West Wing for Russianists, history wonks, and Stalin buffs.
The idea of a lighthearted movie about the purges is awkward at best. But, Iannucci and his co-writer, David Schneider (28 Days Later, A Knight’s Tale) are no strangers to the road less traveled, and the gamble pays off. This is 105 minutes of off-color laugh out loud jokes, and “I feel guilty for laughing” but can’t help myself humor.
Steve Buscemi (The Big Lebowski, Boardwalk Empire) is brilliant as the scheming, yet hopelessly nebbishy, Nikita Khrushchev. And Jeffrey Tambor (The Hangover, Arrested Development) plays the addled-minded straight man as Georgy Malenkov, the one ostensibly “in charge” after Stalin’s slapstick demise.
It’s almost impossible to tell how accurate the history is here, as there’s just so much going on, and there really are no sacred cows in Iannucci’s deft savaging of the Russian political classes.
From Rupert Friend’s (Young Victoria, Homeland) turn as Vasily Stalin, the revered leader’s hot-tempered lout of a son, to Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter) playing a coarse, scarred General Zhukov, and Russian peasants who all look like the cast of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, there’s just too much to process for the audience to worry about what the filmmakers got “right”.
Opening with a radio producer restaging a concert that’s just ended (to appease Stalin), and pleading with the departing audience, “Please take your seats again. It’s not going to kill you”, it’s clear that under Stalin everyone thinks the least little slip could get them killed. And, often it did. But it’s the machinations of those around him that are truly impressive.
It seems that, at least in this telling, in the wake of a tyrant, nobody maneuvers for power to do the right thing and return a state of peace, calm, and order to people. It’s all about the backbiting, side deals, and the double and triple-cross, all while trying not to step on the bodies of those that came before you. That’s the world that Iannucci and Schneider introduce us to. And it’s the world they mock mercilessly.
Overall, ‘the Death of Stalin’ is a fun and quirky film for people with a very particular sense of humor, or an interest in all things Russian.
‘The Death of Stalin’ opens in Irish cinemas on October 20th.
Review by Glenn Kaufmann, a Dublin-based freelance writer, and one of the founders of No-Budget, a show for independent filmmakers. Click on the link to discover more: http://youtube.com/c/NoBudgetShow