S ometimes a movie comes along that, although it is ostensibly about one thing, proves remarkably illuminating about something else entirely. Such a film is The Death of Stalin, a new comedy directed by Armando Iannucci (the same man responsible for, among other things, the corrosive political satire In the Loop). Iannucci’s movie fulfills the promise of the title, offering a look inside Soviet culture through a plot whose precipitating event is the death of Joseph Stalin. At the same it offers an illuminating look into the absurdities of authoritarian culture, making it relevant to many other historical situations, including that of contemporary America.
As the film opens, pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) is performing with an orchestra for a live radio broadcast. Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) enjoys it so much he asks for a copy of the LP, which creates a problem since the performance was not recorded. Rather than disappoint the Man of Steel, the radio producer (Paddy Considine) orders that the entire concert be repeated so that a recording can be produced. This requires, among other things, bribing the soloist (who knows that should another pianist be used, the differences in interpretation would be obvious) filling the now-empty hall with peasants right out of Central Casting so the acoustic qualities will be similar to the first performance, and bringing in a new conductor (who, far from being upset about being summoned in his pajamas, is pleased to step up to the podium since he expected to be carted off by the Secret Police for more sinister purposes) . The recording is produced and sent to Stalin, but it has quite an unexpected result: Yudina has managed to slip a note into the LP sleeve telling Stalin exactly what she thinks of him, and he promptly drops dead.
When Stalin’s body is discovered, the power players trip all over each other to avoid stating the obvious, while at the same time jockeying to improve their own position and take advantage of the unexpected regime change (or, more darkly, to avoid becoming discarded goods under the new power structure). It’s a fine ensemble performance of a sharply written script (by Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows), with Simon Russell Beale placing first among equals for his menacing performance as Lavrentiy Beria, head of the NKVD (secret police). Jason Isaacs also makes a strong impression as war hero Georgy Zhukov, as do Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov, Steve Buscemi (whose dreadful bald wig can’t be an accident) as Nikita Krushchev, Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov, and Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough as Stalin’s children Vasily and Svetlana.
The Death of Stalin, based on a graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, offers the chance to observe a world ruled by absurdity from a safe distance, and leaves it up to you to draw what conclusions you may relating to other situations. It can be enjoyed as a comedy even if you don’t know that much about the Soviet Union, but knowledge of the real context being satirized definitely makes the barbs sting more sharply. Each of the principal characters is introduced with a chyron stating name and title, which is useful because there are so many of them and the actors don’t necessarily look like the people they are portraying, but it can still be a challenge to keep them all straight. That’s not a criticism so much as a warning: This film assumes a fairly literate audience who enjoy engaging their mind as well as their sense of humor. | Sarah Boslaugh