by Alan Yudman
I was recently raving to a friend about THE DEATH OF STALIN after having seen it on cable. That makes it about 6 times that I have seen this marvelous satire from the brilliant and deranged mind of Armando Iannucci. So I decide to check out my review and.. GASP… I realize I never posted a review! Well, time to fix that lapse.
I am a huge fan of Iannucci’s previous work. Everyone loves VEEP, and while it’s still good, it is just a smidge less after Iannucci left after 2015. But that wasn’t my introduction to him. I first became aware of his particular brand of satire with IN THE LOOP (and looking back on my 2009 review, boy did I get that one wrong). That Academy Award nominated screenplay was bitingly funny and a poignant look at the buffoonery of the British and American governments. After diving a bit deeper I realized Peter Capaldi’s character, Malcolm, originated in the British series THE THICK OF IT. I have been able to catch a few of those, but they are incredibly hard to find. Then I realized that he helped create Steve Coogan’s legendary Alan Partridge. So yeah, I am totally in the tank for Armando Iannucci.
That brings us to THE DEATH OF STALIN. The movie is set in Moscow and at Stalins dacha just after the dictator’s death. What we witness is the struggle for power in the days after. This is about 10 levels of hilarious. There are not many Russians in the cast. Olga Kurylenko (QUANTUM OF SOLACE) is a concert pianist, and other than a few other tiny roles, that’s it. The actors are mostly British and American. There is no attempt at accurate accents and it doesn’t matter. Iannucci isn’t going for historical accuracy. He’s going for laughs and biting satire.
Here’s a list of who plays whom.
Steve Buscemi: Nikita Khrushchev
Jeffrey Tambor: Georgy Malenkov
Michael Palin: Vyacheslav Molotov
Simon Russell Beale: Lavrenti Beria
Andrea Riseborough: Svetlana Stalina
Rupert Friend: Vasily Stalin
Jason Isaacs: Field Marshal Zhukov
So, yeah. This is an amazing cast. There are also short appearances by Paddy Considine and Tom Brooke early in the movie that set the comedic stage.
The power struggle pits Khrushchev against Beria. Both are trying to manipulate the rules to seize power. Beale is head of the NKVD, the secret police. Both he and Khrushchev are part of the Government’s and Party’s inner power circle. So the way they try to take advantage of situations are inspired and hilarious.
Everyone is fabulous, but the standouts are Buscemi, Beale and Isaacs. Beale is a legendary British stage actor who has a few movie and TV credits. He is incredible in this. The joy he takes at torturing and using people is amazing. Buscemi is at peak Buscemi. And Isaacs’ menacing, brutal military leader is almost my favorite part of the movie.
This is so layered with not so subtle jabs at American and British politics, you have to watch it at least twice to catch everything. I don’t think that’s bad. Iannucci gets it all in brilliantly and the movie just gets better with each viewing. I keep spotting things I missed the first, second or third time. The parallels to America’s current political culture may not be intentional, but they are certainly there.
Iannucci can make you think about things while making you laugh out loud. Isn’t that what great satire is about? I think it is and THE DEATH OF STALIN is a prime example of a great filmmaker at his peak.
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