'The Death of Stalin' is a deeply dark and delightful satire
We live in strange times, don’t we? Where alternative facts are nearly indistinguishable from the truth. Where our leaders do and say things that often leave us scratching our heads. Where our presidential cabinets have become a revolving door of characters. That’s what makes “The Death of Stalin” so wonderfully funny and reflective. Its timeliness reminds us of the humor and absurdity of our present political conditions—and perhaps the horror we see in the face of it.
The latest from “ Veep” creator Armando Iannucci, “The Death of Stalin” follows, well, the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and the ensuing leadership struggle within the Communist Party to fill his shoes. The contest becomes more of a rat race between Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Deputy Prime Minister Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale). What’s striking is director Iannucci’s decision to not have his actors use a Russian accent. All dialogue is spoken in English with respective accents. It may throw you for a loop at first, but this intentional move allows for that timeliness to exude from the screen. It also allows you to clearly understand and connect with the great performances of the cast.
Buscemi plays Khrushchev as rather sympathetic: the trail-blazing reformer hoping to do some good while always having the utmost loyalty to the Party. Beale plays Beria as rather sinister: the opportunistic power-hungry minister who feels as though their time has come. Both play their respective roles well, but viewers can grow tired of that same Steve Buscemi routine—if you’ve seen one Buscemi movie, you’ve seen them all. He does do a little to try and play Khrushchev differently, and it makes you hungry to see him push it further. In any event, his routine does accompany the film nicely, but if you were hoping to see him play things radically different you will be sorely disappointed.
While the film’s main conflict is between Buscemi and Beale’s characters, the rest of the cast gives great performances, such as Jeffrey Tambour as the bumbling First Secretary Georgy Malenkov and Rupert Friend as Stalin’s alcoholic son Vasily. It is Jason Isaacs as military leader Georgy Zhukov who really steals the show, however. While his screen time may be brief, his one-liners and over-exertion of military bravado provide an ample amount of chuckles that will delight and shock with their honesty.
The humor of the film lies in its mockery of the small details that bureaucracies and dictatorships often revel in. It is as much a satire of the minutiae, often absurd points of statecraft as it is an indictment of ideology. Beale’s Beria will have you in goosebumps as his manipulation of the cogs of the communist machine and lies he spreads feels eerie as it is all in the name of power. What is to be commended here is the subtle tonal shift that happens in the film so that by the end it is less a comedy and more a horror. The shift towards darkness happens slowly throughout the film and we find ourselves at the end, pondering how we got to this darkly sinister conclusion.
“The Death of Stalin” demands your attention. It’s a darkly humorous satire that looks to the past to inform us of our present. Like all good pieces of film, it transcends its setting and orients itself towards the present and future. But like all good satires, its humor comes from those who are willing to see the world in all of its absurdity.
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