When a dark comedy is taken from historical events- especially the death of a notorious dictator- it has to be done in a particular way that leaves audiences jaw-dropped, wide-eyed and trying to comprehend if what they saw was “even allowed in a movie.” These instances have been seen before in films such as The Dictator, Borat, or even The Interview, but there’s an aspect about director Armando Iannucci’s dry, witty, and cutting English humor that allows The Death of Stalin to triumph.
Known for his work on In The Loop and Veep, Iannucci isn’t a stranger to innovative, intellectual comedy. Again, he stands out as the mind behind this Soviet-mocking masterpiece. Though his creativity and directing is a foundation that pierces the film together, the cast is an outstanding, as each actor compliments one another’s’ techniques and styles.
The film takes two plots and strings into one, as it opens upon a symphony performance. Upon the request that Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) wants a live recording of the event, it leads to a helpless attempt to reorchestrate an orchestra. Once the record has been completed and delivered, a remorseful message written by Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) is smuggled into the packaging, which sparks an unfortunate series of events. The approach to take two plots, one from a young woman filled with hate, and the request for a record, and then to swiftly stream it into a single, solid plotline, is sharp.
Jeffery Tambor rises above and beyond as Georgy Malenkov. His flighty, skittish nature and run-on dialogue style are what makes him such a delight in this dramedy. He paces himself when it comes to execution on a punchline. A prime example of his encounter with son Vasily Stalin (Rupert Friend) upon his request to speak at his father’s funeral. Malenkov replies with a rushed “no problem.” When Stalin seems pleased with his answer, Malenkov retracts his statement by saying “No, problem” to indicate his opposal.
Stalin seems to a minimal focus after he passes. His death takes time to actually happen, as his death is hoaxed by multiple health scares. His party of advisers finds him either in poor health on a few accounts or eventually dead. One scene is very reminiscent of a sketch that could be taken from Monty Python, as during the events of a vascular dysfunction, he points at a painting towards the Virgin Mary feeding a lamb.
During this, members that have gathered around to respond to the crisis have suggested that Stalin is “the lamb of the Lord,” “the provider to the nations,” and the milk that the lamb is drinking is to be the “prosperity” in which Stalin is delivering to the people. Overall, it’s a clever approach to a scrambled and disorganized situation and the use of over-analyzing is perfectly placed.
The funeral procession is evermore hysterical and unsurprisingly adroit. Four of Stalin’s men are placed around the perimeter his coffin as mourners respectively file through. In order to convey information from person to person, they attempt to subliminally rotate themselves, though the overall scene is deliberately uncoordinated. Quickly, it becomes a frustrated game of “telephone,” which the outcome of aggressive mumbling is hard not to laugh at.
In the array of figures are re-imagined from the time period, Rupert Friend’s representation of Vasily Stalin is completely ludicrous. Though he is shown briefly, he is either shouting nonsense, armed and dangerous, or despite the initial confusion, speaking at his father’s service to the Soviet Union. Much like any other thing that he says, his memorial is absurd and presents his father as “a warm bear” and “[they] are his 170,000 orphaned cubs,” before he goes on to list a number of countries.
The Death of Stalin diverges into a darker substance near the end of the film, as the unsightly truth of Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale) is faced and he is required to face his consequences. The aspect of comedy fades away as the drama is escalated. Ultimately, the conclusion becomes violent and ends in execution.
When this concluding detail is overlooked, The Death of Stalin is a smart, quick-witted, and amusing comedy that pinpoints historical humor. It’s star-studded and freshly polished with astuteness. This is one movie that shouldn’t be missed.