Film Review: The Kinetic ‘The Death of Stalin’ is Biting Satire

There are few people more adept at crafting political satire than Armando Iannucci. Iannucci first broke through for America audiences when “In the Loop” crashed the 82nd Academy Awards. That film follows the insanely botched and incompetent diplomatic run-up to the war in the Middle East through a series of fictional characters. The film was based on characters in Iannucci’s extremely successful “The Thick of It,” and the combination led to HBO to bet on “Veep,” a show which has taken home 12 Emmys. However, Iannucci left his creation to focus on new endeavors, including film. The result is “The Death of Stalin,” adapted from the graphic novel by Fabien Nury. The film follows the political upheaval in the USSR after Joseph Stalin passes away in 1953. Iannucci has taken a giant step in “The Death of Stalin,” crafting one of the blackest comedies in years.

Contrary to the name of the film, “The Death of Stalin” actually begins with Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin) as a man that is very much alive. He orders a local radio station to send him their recording of an orchestral performance while he dines with his top advisors. Among his advisors are Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), and Molotov (Michael Palin). After their dinner, Stalin listens to the recording, during which time he has a stroke. After his death, the four men fight for control of the USSR and attempt to find their way to power on the global stage.

The real highlights of the film are the script, and the top-tier performances throughout. It’s very difficult to imagine that there are many films more equipped to summarize the Trump presidency over the last few weeks. The irony of telling a story of incompetence and sychophancy coming from a story about Russians is not lost on the audience. It’s doubtful that the five-person team, headlined by Iannucci, is meant to have this connotation. However, whether the script is a comment on world politics or coincidentally has this message is irrelevant. The narrative and one-liners hit home here, delivering a poignant satire filled with some of the best characters in modern comedy.

The film is ensemble piece through and through, yet the film’s standout performance is Beale as Beria. At times, Beale makes Beria seems like he could be the savior of Russia. However, he’s also a misogynist that openly tortures those around him. Beale’s performance is terrific, and while the renowned thespian has mostly stuck to the stage, this should propel him to pursue more film roles. Buscemi also gives arguably his best film performance in years. Fingers crossed this helps begin to build a narrative for him because he should really see some consideration for the Globe Lead Actor next awards season.

Andrea Riseborough gives another strong performance that should help her branch into more comedic endeavors. She’s a standout, and really delivers some powerful moments of authenticity despite the satire. Rupert Friend is hilariously big in his role and chews up the scenery with the absurdity of his character’s flaws. Finally, Jason Isaacs gives the film a nice shot in the arm when he arrives. He delivers a new and starkly different variable into a narrative already spinning off the tracks. It’s a solid turn that is wholly unlike his more mainstream performances.

Iannucci spices up the film with some surprise directorial flair. First, he does not ask the actors to speak in accents. This adds to the satirical feel of the narrative while making it clear the goal is not accuracy, but absurdity. This also allows the visual humor throughout the film to play as well. By grounding the film in this style, the violence of a secret police state becomes ripe for black comedy. We see torture occur in the background. There are gunshots and screams played for comedy. The violence could easily turn some off, but Iannucci’s comedy disassociates the acts from the characters perpetrating them.

Finally, Iannucci really lets his below-the-line craftsman go to work. The costumes are extremely well made, and Suzie Harman makes it much easier to differentiate characters through their clothing. Isaac’s uniform is particularly hilarious and adds a visual gag to the film as well. The music is very strong, and composer Christopher Willis easily takes us into the age of Stalin. Delivering a classical feel to the movie makes even smaller events in the film feel grandiose. The production design from Christina Casali allows for diverse sets that range from dungeons to state capital halls. Even flowers and medals are used for visual comedy, which should allow the film to hold excellent rewatch value. Altogether, Iannucci delivers the most technically brilliant film of his career.

“The Death of Stalin” is about as perfect a comedy that we’ll see in 2018. The perfect blend of black humor, “Stalin” has a very real message about the political world today. To simply write the film off for its early release date would be a huge mistake. Beale, Buscemi, and potentially the screenwriters, may all fight for space in one race or another. This is an excellent spiritual sequel that matches the brilliance of “In the Loop,” a feat that is not easily surpassed.

What did you think of “The Death of Stalin?” Let us know the comments below! 

“The Death of Stalin” releases in limited theaters March 9th, 2018. It is distributed by IFC. 

GRADE: (★★★½)