Monday 2 November 2020

Movie Review: The Death Of Stalin (2017)

A comedy satirizing the inept machinations of communism, The Death Of Stalin offers a few laughs but rarely finds a sustained groove.

In the Soviet Union of 1953, leader Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) rules through terror. Any name landing on his notorious lists ends up summarily imprisoned or executed. Beria (Simon Russell Beale) is the feared head of intelligence and the man entrusted to carry out Stalin's atrocities.

When Stalin suddenly dies, panic grips his inner circle. The unsure Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) takes over as interim leader, but Beria manoeuvers to retain power behind the scenes. Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) is the smartest of the men within the Central Committee, but risks being sidelined when assigned the seemingly menial duties of arranging Stalin's funeral. But Khrushchev makes good use of the opportunity and aligns with commander of the army Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) to plot a power grab.

A European production adapting a French comic book series loosely inspired by real events, The Death of Stalin is a throwback to Monty Python-style comedy from the 1970s, and carries the baggage of humour from another era. Director and co-writer Armando Iannucci rides a scattershot approach bouncing among sketched set-pieces and relying on the cast to make the most of limited ideas. And every contrivance is squeezed to the limit, often well past the point of yielding laughs.

So Stalin's death takes forever, his bumbling comrades running around holding committee meetings to decide whether to call a doctor. Funny for a while, Iannucci stretches the gag for the best part of 25 minutes. Later Stalin's offspring are introduced, but Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend) contribute very few jokes and are then stranded, making background noise to no effect. A side story related to dissident pianist Maria Yudin (Olga Kurylenko) struggles for any traction.

Whether funny or not, Iannucci features the constant drum beat of innocent people being shot as the film's omnipresent wallpaper. As an Animal Farm-style condemnation of communism The Death Of Stalin is uncompromising, but also heartless.

None of the characters receive any background context to round them into people worth caring about, so the cast members are abandoned to cartoonish corners and resort to enhancing bizarre attributes and buffoonery. Simon Russell Beale and Jason Isaacs leave the biggest impressions in exaggerated representations.

The Death Of Stalin carries a glossy look, the locations often lavish, the wardrobes crisp and the makeup convincing. But with a too-easy topic choice, the comedy leans on vulgarities before being exposed as out of time.

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