The Death of Stalin, directed by Armando Iannucci, is both one of the funniest films I’ve seen this year and also one of the darkest films I’ve seen this year. The film has great fun with its story and fills the scenes with richly devious individuals who you love to hate. Armando Iannucci is brilliant at cutting to the core of the stupidity of people and situations (his previous work like, The Thick of It, being a prime example of this) and the film is full of conversations, backstabbing and horrendous acts that leave you laughing, but also a little uncomfortable. There is humour and there is also darkness, but what is it that makes this film so much fun to watch? Let’s explore that and more in my review.
After the death of Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin – played by Adrian McLoughlin – a fight to assume control of The Soviet Union, quickly consumes the men who were Stalin’s closest allies. Nikita Khrushchev – played by Steve Buscemi – and Lavrentiy Beria – played by Simon Russell Beale – are the first and most aggressive to act, but nothing can be fully achieved unless they have the full support of the other members of the party. It’s political backstabbing on a whole other level.
If you’ve seen any of the marketing for this film, then you know that it sets itself up as a smart, biting, witty comedy where the jokes fly fast and have some genuine punch to them. But I suppose that shouldn’t come as a surprise when you consider the fact that, Armando Iannucci directs the film, thus he brings his ability to drill down into the absurdity of a situation and mine it, for our laugh-filled benefit.
You wouldn’t think that the communist regime of the Soviet Union would result in many laughs. It’s cold, grey unflinching exterior doesn’t seem like the kind of place where brilliantly written jokes or well-constructed physical humour would thrive. But in this film, it does. Not only was I laughing again and again, but my friends next to me, and the audience around us, were all also letting out satisfying laugh after satisfying laugh.
Iannucci’s ability to tap into the idiocy that thrives in politics and make it play in a way that delivers some meaningful commentary on the world we live in, while also entertaining us with some wonderfully constructed characters who you are both endeared to and loathe at the same time, is a talent he has honed over the years and he utilises that talent and expertise to great effect in this film.
Take, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) for example. He is a truly evil individual who partakes in some unbelievably heinous acts. But he also has some incredibly funny dialogue that plays off of that evil and leaves you laughing but with a hint of regret following closely behind it. Not only is he a character who demands your attention (for fear you may be on one of his death lists next) but he is also someone who I strangely wanted to see more of. Much like when there is a terrible accident on the road, you find yourself weirdly wanting to look at the carnage… the aftermath. That’s what it was like with, Beria. You didn’t know what cruelty he may in-act next, but in a masochistic sort of way, I had to see it. It would either leave me laughing or squirming in horror – now that makes for an interesting individual to watch!
And the film is full of characters to enjoy – too many for me to talk about all of them. Georgy Malenkov – played by Jeffrey Tambor – blends some hilarious dialogue with his comedic brilliance/timing. Malenkov’s dangerous naivety makes for a character who you laugh at, not with, but there was always a sense in the back of my mind that he at any point could snap, and do something unexpectedly terrible.
Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) seems like the most together of all the people we meet in the film, but that still doesn’t remove him from being a terrible person who makes you regret laughing. Similar to Jeffrey Tambor, Buscemi brings his comedic cadence to the role and amps up any interaction he is in. There is nothing funnier than watching Buscemi play a character that is losing it. The hurried rhythm of his dialogue makes for some greatly timed verbal take downs.
I could honestly spend the rest of this review, breaking down and examining each of the damaged, nuanced characters/performances in the film. Andrea Riseborough, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Rupert Friend, Paddy Considine. They could all be praised and lovingly spoken about. The film simply is not short on individuals who have you laughing and leave you thinking about them, long after the film has finished. To choose a favourite would be a difficult task for sure.
But as I’ve made mention of here and there: The Death of Stalin is not all fun and games. There is a hidden darkness that runs parallel to the fun. It’s never approached head on, the film doesn’t directly make reference to some of the more sinister, gut churning elements that make up its focus. But it’s there and if you’re paying attention, you’ll become aware of some truly dark, dark stuff. Which I think the film had to do. To turn something like, The Soviet Union into just jokes, would be to ignore something that left a painful scar on the world. It would almost be insulting if the film didn’t still contain the evils that fuelled the communist regime for so many years.
But where the difficulty lay, when it came to having it be part of the film: was balancing it with the much more prevalent and enjoyable comical side of things. I personally think that, Armando Iannucci and the team around him did a really good job of achieving that balance. It never felt jarring, when reality would rear its head in the film. There were certainly a few moments where the horridness of the situation would cause me to mentally recoil and I would feel a pit forming in my stomach the closer the film got to its distressingly bleak end. But that didn’t stop the biting commentary on the stupidity and evilness of the people and the party from still doing its job and getting many laughs from me. It’s certainly a difficult balancing act to accomplish, but in my opinion, the film did it.
Overall, I really enjoyed my time with, The Death of Stalin – which does feel like an odd thing to say, considering the subjects it touches upon, but it’s true. Both myself and my friends came out of the film really having enjoyed what we had watched. One even said that it might be his favourite film of the year so far, so there’s that. The almost farcical nature of both the characters and the situation, had me forever laughing, and the reality-filled gut checks caused me to think about the film in a much deeper way than if it had all just been jokes. It’s a film with much to say and it does so in a greatly rewarding way.
I absolutely recommend, The Death of Stalin. If you’re a fan of Armando Iannucci’s work, then you will surely enjoy this film. But if you’re simply looking for some laughs, then this film will give that to you in droves.
I’d love to know what you thought of the film and my review, so please leave any feedback, opinions etc. in the comments section down below. It’d also be great if you were to follow both my blog and my Twitter – @GavinsRamblings. But I’ll stop asking you for things now and instead thank you for your time and wish you a happy day!