It probably wouldn’t be fair to say that Armando Iannucci has “outdone himself” with his latest movie, The Death of Stalin; those familiar with his work (The Thick of It, Veep) know that he rarely disappoints when it comes to creating effective political satire. I went to see this movie with my partner, who knows more about (a) the Soviet Union and (b) films than I do, and while I was initially hesitant (I failed to do my research and thought I was being dragged along to another historical documentary) I found myself laughing my way through the entire event.
The movie begins innocuously enough: a member of staff (Paddy Considine) at a concert hall receives a telephone call in the final minutes of an orchestra recital. Stalin wants a recording of the evening’s show – which was unrecorded. In a panic, the remaining audience members are locked in the hall, the piano player, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) receives a bribe to keep playing and random members of the public are funnelled in from the streets to disguise the echo that a half-empty hall would create.
The completed recording of the second show is delivered to Stalin, hours after the original performance ended. The dictator never has the chance to listen to the full concerto; he collapses, alone, shut in his chambers, where he remains for hours. The guards outside the room leave him there, despite hearing the thud of his body hitting the carpet, both of them too scared to open the door.
When his body is finally discovered by his Cabinet members (Steve Buscemi as “Nicky” Khrushchev and Simon Russell Beale at Lavrentiy Beria, to name a few), the ensuing scene is one which encapsulates the atmosphere of 1950s Moscow – and, by extension, the atmosphere of the movie itself – one of constant, abject fear.
Sourcing a doctor for Stalin in 1953 proves incredibly difficult. One comrade points out the fact that there are “no good doctors left in Moscow” – a reference to the “Doctors Plot,” where a paranoid Stalin had many doctors arrested as he thought they were conspiring against him. (The doctors in question were released one month after Stalin’s death.) It’s moments like this which succeed in bringing humour to an altogether grim situation: one in which senior Cabinet officials are too afraid to badmouth their leader, in case he wakes up and adds them to one of his “lists” of people he’d like killed.
When the dictator, eventually, passes on, what follows is absolute chaos as the most senior members of the Party are forced to deal with a prospect they possibly never envisioned actually happening: the death of Stalin. Jeffrey Tambor gives a convincing performance as Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s predecessor. If the real-life Malenkov was anything like Tambor’s depiction, it’s no surprise that the other party members considered him too weak to lead the Soviet Union. A personal favourite – perhaps because I was exposed to Monty Python at far too young an age – was Michael Palin as Molotov, an earnest character dealing with his wife being arrested for treason. Andrea Riseborough stood out as Svetlana Stalina, daughter of the dictator, who only gave away for brief moments that her knowledge of the Soviet regime was more in-depth than she wanted to admit.
The movie is punctuated with gunshots, heard from far-away rooms as we follow the characters through bleak, grey-brown corridors. They only occasionally undermine the semi-light tone of the movie, leaving some parts too awful to contemplate. One scene where a door in a prison is opened to reveal a weakened, emaciated woman (I won’t say who – spoilers!) leaves a sour taste in the mouth – the lady next to me in the cinema audibly whispered “oh my god” at this point. There were also some genuinely revealing moments. One which sticks with me is just before Beria’s downfall, when he implies he has enough secrets about the entire Cabinet to have them killed. “I’ve got lists!” he cries, desperately throwing his papers in the air. He, like the audience, is clearly aware that without Stalin, the lists mean nothing.
The movie, of course, has too many fantastically funny moments to name – from some really great physical comedy at Stalin’s funeral to the quick-fire dialogue between comrades. These helped break up the scenes of violence, and to dilute the miserable atmosphere which sometimes threatened to overpower the movie.
So, would I watch this movie again? Yes. And I’d take my mum. It’s satirical, yet overall inoffensive; gloomy, but hysterically funny.
By Margaret Turner