The Death of Stalin

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  The Death of Stalin
 

The reign of terror that gripped the Soviet Union for nearly three decades ended abruptly in 1953 when its tyrannical leader abruptly dies. His death sparks a palace intrigue as all of the docile underlings turn vicious and the jockeying begins as each plots to take power after “The Death of Stalin.”

Robin:
Armando Iannucci has a reputation for biting satire and gallows humor in his works. Just watch TVs “Veep” and his feature film, “In the Loop (2009)” and you get the idea. His latest is an interpretation of the world-changing event and the people around it. What starts out as a slapstick comedy of errors as the players vie for power and position in the new Soviet Union, turns sober and sinister as the based-on-fact story plays out.

The all-star cast portrays Stalin’s henchmen and lackeys and their names will be familiar to all – all of us who are interested in history, particularly the Stalin era. For the rest, Iannucci gives us a serious history lesson that he sweetens with dark humor leavened with absurdist slapstick, at least at the start.

Iannucci and his team of writers – David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows – adapt the French graphic novel by Fabien Nury, taking good advantage of the talented players. Steve Buscemi is Nikita Khrushchev, who would be the winner in the power play; Simon Russell Beale plays Lavrenti Beria, the cruel head of the murderous KGB; Jeffrey Tambour is Georgy Malenkov, the weak sister Deputy General Secretary ostensibly set to take over for his deceased boss; Michael Palin plays Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s past Foreign Minister on the outs with his leader; Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend get the most from their small roles as Stalin’s children, Svetlana and constantly drunk Vasili.

The first half of “The Death of Stalin,” as I said, is rife with slapstick as the above mentioned historical characters buffoon their way to gaining power. As the palace intrigue plays out, the film takes on a more somber tone as the viewer realizes that these clowns are also men of great influence and vindictiveness. Their jockeying to take over is, at first, very funny. But, as we see what these jokers actually did – thousands die as the players vie for control of the Soviet Union – things get much darker and less outright funny.

Since “The Death of Stalin” starts out on a silly high note, most viewers will expect that through to the end. Armando Iannucci and his talented cast and crew do something much deeper. They start the story with a tickle and ends with jaw-busting insight into the evil that held one quarter of the world captive for half a century. (And, they may be doing it again.) I give it a B.

Laura:
As Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) sits at his dinner table surrounded by his ministers, it is clear his right-hand man, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), is his most clueless, asking about the well being of one of their recently snuffed own.  But it is Malenkov who comes into power, albeit for only two days as his colleagues make their power plays after "The Death of Stalin."

When French producers bought the rights to the based-on-fact graphic novels of Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, they turned to preeminent political satirist cowriter (with David Schneider, Ian Martin)/director Armando Iannucci ("In the Loop") to make their film adaptation.  With a cast hailing from both sides of the Atlantic, refreshingly speaking with their usual accents (Stalin himself sounds like a British gangster), Iannucci finds the farce within the NKVD's Great Terror.

That comical terror is ably reproduced in a real life incident as classical radio producer Andreyev (Paddy Considine) gets a telephone call instructing him to call back in 17 minutes.  Andreyev is frantic, first by having received a phone call from Stalin, then trying to figure out when his 17 minute clock began. The concert, featuring pianist Maria Veniaminovna Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), goes out over the air without a hitch.  Then Andreyev makes his phone call and learns Stalin wants a recording of it sent over pronto and the man, who doesn't have one, infects everyone with his own terror as he attempts to recreate it. (In a delightful touch, one kerchiefed babushka sits in the audience, a commercial sized jar of pickled eggs open in her lap.)

But the resentful Yudina sneaks a poisoned pen letter into the recording's sleeve and when Stalin reads it, he has a massive heart attack on the spot.  The two guards outside of his closed door hear a thump, but are too terrified to enter.  Stalin's death is not discovered until the next day (this is all true), Malenkov, Minister of Agriculture Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), NKVD Chief Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale, "Into the Woods") and Foreign Affairs Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) all desperately trying to avoid Stalin's piss puddle as they crowd around his body.  By the time Stalin's daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) arrives, they and ministers Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley, "The Lady in the Van"), Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse, "Mortdecai") and Bulganin (Paul Chahidi, "The Voices") trip over themselves while tripping each other to curry her favor.

Decking himself out in white while clearly in over his head, Malenkov glides about in a bubble as Beria tries to grab power, assigning an irked Khrushchev funeral arrangements.  Buscemi takes peevishness to an art form ('You've been rejected by the Snow King') as Beale reveals a deep and dark corruption (his treatment of a young maid is chilling).  More hilarity is introduced via Stalin's son Vasily (Rupert Friend) trying to hide the fact that the Soviet Ice Hockey team he was in charge of all perished in a plane crash.  Jason Isaacs has never been more mischievous than he is here as Field Marshal Zhukov, a guy who's gung-ho for skullduggery.  Palin plays Molotov like your balmy old uncle.

'I never thought it would be you' Svetlana says to Khrushchev as she's banished to Vienna, Khrushchev himself seemingly surprised that he's come out on top in his game of chicken with Beria (the two stop and start trains into Moscow for Stalin's funeral, creating a rioting mob).  "The Death of Stalin" is a deft achievement, the telling of a treacherous historical event with the comedic chaos of the Marx Brothers and abrupt physical farce of the Three Stooges.

Grade: B+
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