The Death of Stalin

Review by © Jane Freebury

Rated MA15+, 1 hour 47 minutes

4.5 Stars

With not much to do one evening, the staff at Radio Moscow only have to adjust the audio settings and enjoy a Mozart concerto while watching the beautiful pianist (Olga Kurylenko).

Then the phone rings. It’s Chairman Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), calling to say his guard are on their way to pick up a recording of the live performance that is on air. Recording, what recording?

Knowing Stalin the way they do, it’s a mad scramble to set things right. The audience is stopped from leaving, and passers-by are press-ganged to fill in for those who did.

The musicians take their places again, but who will replace the conductor, who happened to knock himself out when he tripped over a fire bucket? All the other good conductors are in the gulag or otherwise disappeared.

One is found, eventually. He arrives in pyjamas and dressing gown, convinced he has been rounded up to be shot like numerous neighbours in his apartment building who, as it happened, were being carted off when he answered a knock at the door.

For the unprepared, this farcical political satire based on historical fact about one of the 20th century’s most barbarous regimes, could be a queasy cocktail. Unless you are prepared to go along with a feature length lampoon of a preposterous, vicious clique that once ran the USSR. The Death of Stalin is set in 1953.

Stalin receives his newly pressed recording, but tucked inside the sleeve is an unwelcome surprise which gives him such a turn that he has a stroke. This isn’t discovered until the next morning, the guards at his door too cowed to investigate the thump they heard as he hit the floor. The position of Russian leader is up for grabs.

As the great man lies prone, dead or dying, it’s over to the inner circle to try to work out succession. Seems there’s no plan.

It could be the dim, lugubrious party deputy, Gyorgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Moscow party head, a toey Nikita Krushchev (Steve Buscemi, complete with New York accent), head of the secret police, Lavrentiy Beria (Shakespearian actor Simon Russell Beale) – or foreign secretary, Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), though he has only just been added to a list to be eliminated.

Now they can emerge from their sycophantic obedience and show their true colours. When Stalin finally dies, it’s game on.

Not one of these acclaimed actors has been required to speak with a Russian accent, though each of them surely could without any effort. It helps to set the tone for this wonderful absurdist political farce from Scottish director and co-writer, Armando Iannucci (In the Loop).

The humour owes much to the great British comedic tradition, and yet the original source material is French. The graphic comic book of the same name on which it is based, is due for release in English.

Two of Stalin’s progeny, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend), also try to take charge of the situation to hilarious effect, but too little of the old man has rubbed off for either of them to have any impact.

The medals strung across the chest of field marshal Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), on the other hand, really do mean something, and he ensures that a baleful chapter in Russian history is put to an end.

This is brilliant, wicked, eviscerating entertainment—a comedy of terrors, indeed.  In throwing a spotlight on the perversity and cruelty of Stalin’s regime, Iannucci shows no restraint as he lampoons each of his targets mercilessly.

A recent ban on this film in Russia is a delicious footnote. On our current understanding of the skills on hand in that country, we trust that The Death of Stalin may still be doing the rounds, circulating as an illegal file.

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

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