The Death of Stalin: A Comic Approach to 1950s Russia

Steve Buscemi as Krushchev, Adrian McLoughlin as Stalin, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Dermot Crowley as Kaganovich, and Simon Russell Beale as Beria in Armando Iannucci’s THE DEATH OF STALIN. Photo by Nicola Dove. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

The Death of Stalin takes a comic approach from director/co-writer Armando Iannucci when it comes to the death of the Russian dignitary in the 1950s.

The all-star cast assembled includes Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Olga Kurylenko, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Paul Chahdi, Dermot Crowley, Adrian McLaughlin, Paul Whitehouse, and Jeffrey Tambor.

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer!  Politics is no easy game to play and there are a lot of players among Stalin’s core ministry team with their own agenda.  With the future of the Soviet Union at stake, they either want control for themselves or they want to make some change for the better.  Or they have their own menacing intentions.  Even as they grapple for their own dear lives, nobody knows how things are going to play out–let’s take that back as people already know how this is going to play out because it’s based on real life!

Khrushchev (Buscemi) doesn’t want secret police head Beria (Beale) in charge so he manages to do whatever he can to be on the good side of Malenkov (Tambor).  At the same time, he ends up taking over for Stalin without even realizing it’s happening.

Whether it’s Molotov (Palin), Mikoyan (Whitehouse), Malenkov, or Khrushchev, there’s something that’s funny in seeing how these men respond to things.  There’s so much calculation at hand with what they say because of their own past.  There is no telling in knowing who wants them dead.

Having already explored the inner workings of the British government in In the Loop and the US government in American satire Veep, it only made perfect sense that Iannucci would tackle Russia next.  After all, three countries did consist of the Allied powers during World War 2.  Where dark comedy gets its influence are a couple of graphic novels by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin–The Death of Stalin and Volume 2 – The Funeral.  With the original screenplay penned by Fabien Nury, the screenplay would be adapted by Iannucci, David Schneider, and Ian Martin with additional material provided by Peter Fellows.

Where this film gets truly original is letting the comedy arise out of the situation after Stalin’s death.  When all of these people are juggling to be in control, it’s only natural that the situation could become comic in the way that it’s tackled.  None of it feels like it’s forced, which is a good thing.  Despite the comedy of the situation, these are still brutal people in charge of who lives and dies at the time in Russia.

The acting, too, helps to elevate the film.  When one looks at the cast, it’s no surprise.  There’s a lot of talent with different background here–American, British, Shakespeare.  Even more zany is how the musical score from longtime Iannucci collaborator, Christopher Willis, goes for a straight approach against the film’s comic timing.

With elevated performances and a nice balance between humor and tragedy, The Death of Stalin brings Iannucci’s love for political satire to a period in history that nobody could have expected.  It’s highly recommended as such.

Premiering at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival and playing in the Spotlight program of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, IFC Films will release The Death of Stalin in the US on March 9, 2018.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

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