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Review: The Death of Stalin

If you saw In the Loop, you know what you’re in for in Armando Iannucci’s latest political satire — dark, hilarious, and sometimes creepy. As the title announces, the film is about the death of the ruthless dictator in 1953, though that only takes up a few minutes at the beginning. What it’s really about is the political wrangling that begins before he’s even left this world. There are three men vying to be the new Soviet leader: Stalin’s second-in-command, the idiot Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), the ambitious Party chief Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), and the truly sick secret police chief Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale). Malenkov didn’t have a chance, but Khrushchev and Beria would stop at nothing. The film is adapted from a comic book telling of the story, and everything that happens has a darkly absurd quality. And even though it’s based in reality, I’m sure the actual men were never as hilarious as they appear in this telling.

There are definitely a lot of laugh out loud moments, but there are also a lot of extremely uncomfortable suggestions of torture and pedophilia, nothing too graphic, but not the stuff of comedy. And that is the tight-rope this film walks. Everyone knows that if they lose this power struggle, they may be shot on the spot, or sent to a gulag until the next change of government. And yet that is just below the surface of the play of some enormous egos. Besides the main three characters — Malenkov, Khrushchev, and Beria — several others are trying to hold on to what they have. Stalin’s two children try to hang on to their waning power, but his son Vasily (Rupert Friend) is a delusional drunk and his daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) is smart enough to know that her days could be numbered. Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy from Harry Potter) is perfect as Field Marshal Zhukov who delights in taking down Beria’s secret police with his Soviet army, and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) is just doing his best not to piss off anyone so he can keep his position.

The director let all the actors use their native accents, so you have everything from Buscemi American to very upper crust British speech — not one of those fake Russkie accents in sight. It was intentional since the Kremlin was populated by people from all over the Soviet Union and at first it is a bit strange, but you get use to it quickly. As an ensemble you couldn’t have asked for a better group of actors. You can almost see them trying to one up each other, just as their characters do. Buscemi and Beale are standouts. And I’m sure that if you are a Russian history buff, you could quibble with bits of the plot, but I think you’d still love the film for its smart and darkly funny dialogue. If you liked In the Loop, you’ll probably like this, too. It’s not quite as funny, but it’s the funniest thing out there right now.

[Mainstream Chick’s take: The Death of Stalin is one quirky, wickedly funny flick that seems frighteningly current with its farcical depiction of events – and “leaders” – from the 1950s. Must be able to appreciate sharp political satire. -hb]

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