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One of the funniest and most distinctive political satirists of our time has finally returned to the big screen, with a lacerating look at the regime of an overweight bully who demands unthinking loyalty and expects reality to conform to his every dictum. We’re speaking, of course, about Joseph Stalin: Having skewered 21st-century White Houses in Veep and In the Loop, Armando Iannucci got out before reality made his invented stupidities and outrages unremarkable. Fortunately for him and for moviegoers, pettiness, vanity and infighting are constants among those in search of power. Though not as stuffed with rapid-fire laughs as In the Loop — could there not have been room here for a virtuoso of profanity played by Peter Capaldi? — this makes a very fine sophomore outing. It will more than satisfy Iannucci’s fans at arthouses; here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another eight years to see the director’s next film.
Based on a graphic novel by Fabien Nury, the production makes no attempt to sound Russian. Its cast of Americans and Brits speak English dialogue in their own varied accents; when we see printed documents on screen, the alphabet is ours, albeit with cute Cyrillic-like typographical flourishes. This Anglicizing approach can feel like a dumbing-down in some films; here, it is a necessary middle-ground between the historical period and Iannucci’s banter-dependent idiom, one that emphasizes the universality of the impulses on display.
We’re in Moscow, 1953, and Stalin is busy enjoying a tyrant’s perks — be that forcing his staff to watch John Ford/John Wayne Westerns in his private screening room, or issuing the day’s new lists of citizens to be murdered. (As the head of secret police Lavrentiy Beria, Simon Russell Beale delivers the latter with sadistic attention to detail: “Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it.” Another benefit of power: If Stalin hears a live performance he likes on the radio, he can phone the control booth and have producers send him a recording of it.
But what if the concert wasn’t committed to wax? A justifiably panicked producer (Paddy Considine) rushes out into the auditorium, refusing to let the orchestra go home. He recruits peasants off the street to replace audience members who’ve left, and convinces the night’s piano soloist (Olga Kurylenko) to give a second performance exactly like the first.
When that freshly cut LP is sent to the Premier’s office, though, the pianist — whose loved ones were killed on his orders — has slipped a bile-filled personal note into the package. Stalin reads the note that evening and, coincidentally or not, collapses of a brain hemorrhage.
Stalin’s body is discovered the next morning, its not-quite-dead status the source of the film’s first slapstick laughs. Though his inner circle is obviously ready for him to die, none can say so. But they’re in a quandary trying to get him medical attention, as every good doctor in town has been sent to Siberia or the grave.
When Stalin finally expires, the Communist Party leadership initially falls to Georgy Malenkov, depicted here as a dimwit with a knack for asking inconvenient questions and filling dead air with awkward anecdotes (Jeffrey Tambor excels in the role). Assuming his duties while Stalin’s body is laid out for public inspection, Malenkov dons a ridiculous all-white suit and a conspicuously slick new coif; clearly, whatever his nominal position, he will not be the one to take the country’s reins.
That contest comes down to Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), who sees the opportunity for major reform, and Beria, who appears to have had his takeover plans ready long before Stalin collapsed. As Khrushchev sets out earnestly to plot the way forward, Beria cuts him off with savvy exploitation of the protocols of grief and party loyalty. “You’re the good guy now?!” Khrushchev asks Beria at one point, later insisting in exasperation: “I’m the reformer. Me.”
With his co-writers David Schneider and Ian Martin, Iannucci shows how the terror Stalin created lingers after his death: Gathering to make urgent decisions, the surviving party officials cannot bring themselves to act without agreeing unanimously; some, like Michael Palin’s Vyacheslav Molotov (whose wife was imprisoned for treason), even pretend to believe official fictions after they’ve been reversed.
Into this Veep-like turmoil come enjoyable complications. Stalin’s daughter and son arrive, in need of consolation. (Rupert Friend, as Vasily Stalin, gets to throw a very funny tantrum.) And while the bureaucrats bicker, a missile of testosterone cruises into Moscow: Red Army commander Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), who had fallen out of Stalin’s favor, is more than ready to help Khrushchev thwart Beria and his secret police.
As talk turns to action, The Death of Stalin shifts from one kind of universal portrait to another: that of a coup planting the seeds of its own downfall. Having come out on top, Khrushchev sits in the audience at another concert; Iannucci pans slowly to the eager, heavy-browed gaze of Leonid Brezhnev behind him. Neither tyrants nor reformers hold power forever, no matter how entrenched they may seem.
Production companies: Quad Productions, Main Journey
Distributor: IFC Films
Cast: Adrian Mcloughlin, Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, Olga Kurylenko, Michael Palin, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs
Director: Armando Iannucci
Screenwriters: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin
Producers: Yann Zenou, Laurent Zeitoun, Nicolas Duval Adassovsky, Kevin Loader
Executive producer: Jean-Christophe Colson
Director of photography: Zac Nicholson
Production designer: Cristina Casali
Costume designer: Suzie Harman
Editor: Peter Lambert
Composer: Christopher Willis
Casting director: Sarah Crowe
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Platform)
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