Satire and a strong cast are very much the heart of Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin.
“Modern Russia is very neurotic about its past – much more neurotic than the Soviet Union ever was,” said Roman Volobuev, Russian film-maker.
That comment was from a reactionary article about Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, which premiered last fall to thunderous applause at the Toronto International Film Festival. Since the premiere, the film has been screening around the U.K. and the United States over the past six months and arrives in Phoenix today. It was eventually banned in Russia, but not before a couple of theaters were able to play it, before the certification was pulled. The satire behind the release of the film is almost as good as the film itself. Almost.
Innaucci will be familiar to audiences with his film In the Loop, which is also another political satire. Here, he gathers an impressive cast of actors to fill the roles of historical figures, including Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough and Olga Kurylenko. Each cast member plays their respective role to the hilt, playing off of one another.
Nothing gives me greater pleasure as a film buff then to see a film satirize not only history, but the repeated history we are living in. The rapid-fire script from Innaucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter fellows, based on La mort de Staline by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, is what caught my attention because it doesn’t demean or mischaracterize the real-life figures that are represented. In fact, if anything it pays homage to the deadly seriousness of “lists,” “plotting,” and “backstabbing” one another for control while trying to be the most superior revisionist.
The resulting chaos is hilarity as Nikita Khrushchev (Buscemi) races to stop Lavrentiy Beria (Beale) from taking control of the Central Committee when Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) suffers from a cerebral hemorrhage and dies.
None of the players are able to hide behind a curtain in this film. Jeffrey Tambor uses his trademark humor to play a “dignified” Georgy Malenkov. Michael Palin plays his charming, funny self as Vyacheslav Molotv. Jason Isaacs continues to amaze and amuse me, especially when he plays a character that’s so obviously cartoonish that he has no choice but to have fun with it, a credit to the character and to Innaucci’s direction.
Bond girl Olga Kurylenko is a key figure in the film, and from her performance, I gathered that she relished in this opportunity. Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana Stalin was probably the most collected individual in the film. Riseborough was a joy to watch on screen as she interacts with the key players, her façade cracking at every turn. Rupert Friend as Vasily Stalin tries to be endearing towards his dead father, but is so inept he doesn’t know any better. There’s a scene between he and Isaacs that you see coming, but is so raucous in its action that you have no choice but to laugh at it.
Iannucci is in the same class as the Zucker Brothers and Mel Brooks. The story, the characters, their actions all reminded me of Top Secret!, Airplane!, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein.
Where I am having a hard time reconciling The Death of Stalin is that there was a point in the film where the story turns more serious. Because we spend a good majority of the film laughing, the turn is subtle. But the shift in the characters’ reactions changed the tone of the film, effectively rendering the humor the follows listless. It’s not the fault of the actors; they played their characters to the bitter end.
Perhaps it’s a reflection of the times we live in that the change in tone set a negative impression. It isn’t so easy for us to laugh at ourselves now.
I imagine historians will be laughing with us in 200 years’ time.
Now in select theaters, The Death of Stalin is rated R by the MPAA.