Joseph Stalin dies unexpectedly turning his ministers into panic. There is a re-balance of power and power grabbing, a state funeral and other un-niceties. The premise appears perfect for a black comedy.
THE DEATH OF STALIN, as the film is appropriately called can be divided into three parts, with sufficient chaos devoted to each. The first part of the film establishes who is who around Stalin. The second is the passing of Stalin and his funeral. The third is what happens after with Stalin’s ministry. The film is described on film sites as a ‘comedy’.
Among the who’s who is Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buchemi) who starts taking charge after Stalin’s passing. Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) receives the worse end of the death, being accused of murder, execution, torture and yes, multiple rapes of little girls, of which Beria demands a fair trial. Other well known actors Michael Palin (of Monty Python), Rupert Friend, Paddy Considine and Jeffrey Tambor add to the impressive cast making up ministers of various departments like defence, agriculture and so on.
Unlike his previous hit IN THE LOOP, Iannucci ’s THE DEATH OF STALIN, treads on the same grounds of political humour bordering on satire but turns out more crass and desperate for laughs. The word ‘fuck’ is uttered too often and sounds out of place in a setting where the real Stalin and his men actually should be speaking Russian. Example: When Stalin’s son is its on making a speech at his father’s funeral, Khrushchev’s response is: “and I want to fuck Grace Kelly.” The questions: “What the fuck is going on?” is uttered many times. The running joke of enemies of the State executed, tortured or imprisoned is fondly used. When Stalin suffers a hurt attack and a doctor needed urgently, it is remarked that all the old doctors have been sent to he Gulag.
The film feels artificial with English spoken throughout, instead of Russian with subtitles. The spectrum of accents is distracting. While Buscemi speaks as if an American, the majority including Stalin speak with a strong British accent.
Despite the variety of accents, the performances are quite convincing. Each actor could pass of as a Stalin comrade. Buschemi is particularly hilarious, though the use of vulgarities could be toned down a little. Jason Isaacs is also memorable as the Russian field marshall who is very fond of punching those he does not like right in the face, and then joke about it.
The sets, costumes and production design is to be commended for an authentic period Russian piece.
In THE DEATH OF STALIN, which premiered last year at TIFF, cheap jokes and crass humour with lots of vulgarity appear the order of the day! But these still bring in the laughs. Just don’t expect classy black satirical humour but crass black satirical humour. The ending is superb though with a shot of Leonid Brezhnev watching over the new proceedings like a cunning fox.