by Alex Bird
The Death of Stalin is an understated dark comedy about the end of an era and the frantic plotting and planning of those tasked with deciding what comes next. The stakes are even higher as each member of the central committee, the governing body of the Soviet Union, knows that a wrong move in Stalin’s Russia can mean a lot more than simply losing influence. Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is a temperamental and vindictive figure with an obsession with cowboy movies. He’s also a larger than life figure who’s every opinion is law. He cannot be questioned, even if that means sending his doctors away for treason if they suggest he may not be in perfect health. His leadership, if nothing else, is strong and unyielding. His shoes are impossible to fill, not that the members of the central committee don’t try anyway.
Stalin’s immediate successor is Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor). He’s weak-willed and vain and no one is under the impression he’ll be in power long. Soon enough, the major contenders emerge: the reformist Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and the vile Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale). Beria is cruel, assertive, manipulative, and, as we soon learn, a prolific sexual predator. He immediately takes charge of the situation and seems to take for granted that he will end up as Premier sooner or later. Khrushchev, who would eventually go on to rule the Soviet Union until 1964, is no less manipulative, but more cautious. As a seemingly authentic voice for liberalization, he’s the closest thing the film has to a hero, but is no less adept at playing the ugly and often violent political intrigue to his favor.
The movie includes some characteristically great performances from its ensemble, rounded out by Andrea Riseborough, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs, and Rupert Friend as other members of Stalin’s inner circle. There aren’t too many laugh out loud moments, but the film has an authentic sense of tension that keeps the story engaging.
Writer-director Armando Iannucci, best known as the creator of the political sitcom Veep, employs his signature style to great effect. What could have easily been a drama, instead plays as a tragic farce, and feels more honest for it. Iannucci is a master at showing how the machinations of politics are, at best, absurd abstractions that have little to nothing to do with policy, and, at worst, deadly games of power in which the greater good is sacrificed for personal gain. Neither the casual brutality of Stalinism, nor the grand ideals of Bolshevism, detract from how ridiculous these power struggles actually are. Soviet politics is literally a game of life and death where survival depends on fitting exactly to the current narrative, and when a power vacuum emerges, that narrative changes by the minute.
Iannucci’s work has been characterized as “taking the political out of politics” but, despite the focus on the behind the scenes of governance, his agenda is obvious. The Death of Stalin shows that the people in power are not necessarily smarter, better, and certainly not kinder than anyone else. Power, as the film shows, comes down to winners and losers, and no one wins forever.
4 out of 5 stars