The Death of Stalin

TIFF Journal: ‘The Death of Stalin’

'The Death of Stalin'

Movie Rating:


Writer/director Armando Iannucci has a knack for finding comedy where it shouldn’t be. He essentially invented cringe comedy (anything ‘Alan Partridge’ related) and even made political comedy mainstream (relatively) with ‘In the Loop’ and ‘Veep’. Now he’s turned the murderous aftermath of Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror into a yukfest and somehow it works.

The film opens on the night of Joseph Stalin’s death and then follows his successors panicking, plotting, and murdering in the wake of the event in an attempt to retain some semblance of power. Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) is the iciest and most ruthless of the bunch, despite having the most pleasant exterior. Michael Palin plays the politely pathetic enabler of all the awful behavior. Jeffery Tambor is perfect as the pompous idiot left in charge with no ideas or spine (hence why he got the job). Andrea Riseborough plays Stalin’s deluded daughter trying to make sense of it all. Rupert Fiend is Stalin’s deadbeat son who’s never sober enough to quite grasp what’s happening. Jason Isaacs is hysterical as the blood-thirsty war hero gleefully encouraging madness. And Steve Buscemi gradually rises in prominence as Nikita Khrushchev, starting as a goofy calming force and ending as the worst of them all.

Why and how all the horrible dealings play out isn’t worth discussing because this expertly plotted farce thrives on surprise and complicated twists that shouldn’t be dissected. What’s important is both how funny and vicious Iannucci’s morbidly politicized romp can feel. The tone is joyfully irreverent and driven by laughs, but the consequences are real and the violence is often soberly staged in the background. The filmmaker is playing with political madness. In some ways, it’s a game he’s played before in ‘Veep’ and ‘The Thick of It’, exploring how polite politicians quickly turn into backstabbing schemers when pushed against a wall. The difference is that this time the consequence is murder and it all actually happened. The film is poignantly brutal, while revealing the childishness of world leaders playing with lives.

Oddly enough, that seems to be an appropriate message to impart right now, doesn’t it? Obviously, Iannucci and his absolutely amazing cast made the film before the recent batch of almost slapstick nuclear conflicts and world-altering elections, and the movie is based on historic events. Yet the message seems true and vital, in the most brutal terms. Watching ‘The Death of Stalin’ is hysterical and at worst bad taste. The way it lingers in the mind long after the credits roll is a bitter pill to swallow. The fact that ideas this harsh and disturbing are delivered in such a joyously hilarious way is remarkable. The ways in which the filmmaker cheekily has all the actors speak in contemporary rhythms with their natural accents both heightens the movie’s reality for extra giggles and openly invites contemporary comparisons. All of which makes ‘The Death of Stalin’ easily the funniest and most insightful political satire since… well… ‘In the Loop’.

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