Movie Review: The Death of Stalin

I was excited this morning, when I spied a post from Joplin’s new indie theater, Bookhouse Cinema. The political satire film, The Death of Stalin, was playing this weekend! This is a movie I’ve been aware of for several months. The reviews have been excellent however, I figured I’d have to catch it later on Netflix.

Not so! Bookhouse listed movie times. I was in the full theater for the 4:15 showing this afternoon.

Movie Review The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin stars Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Adrian McLoughlin, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs, Paul Whitehouse, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend and Paul Chahidi. This dark comedy, directed by Armando Iannucci, is rated R for adult themes, language and violence, and has a run time of 1 hour and 47 minutes. The movie is adapted from the comic book by the same name, written by Thierry Robin and Fabien Nury. Iannucci co-wrote the screenplay.

The movie begins in March 1953. As he listens to a recording of a concert, and reads a note from an unhappy citizen, Josef Stalin (McLoughlin), doubles over in pain and falls to the floor. When he is found, barely clinging to life, the senior members of his Council of Ministers hastily gather to make important, far reaching decisions. As they jockey for power and position, Stalin dies…and chaos ensues.

Movie Review The Death of Stalin

The Council Members include Nikita Khrushchev (Buscemi), Deputy Malenkov (Tambor) who will assume leadership, Anastas Mikoyan (Whitehouse), Vyacheslav Molotov (Palin), Nicolai Bulganin (Chahidi), and Lavrenti Beria (Beale), head of the secret police.

Even though Malenkov steps into authority, he is beset by indecision and swings between emotional highs and lows. This polarizes the rest of the Council Members. Beria, a ruthless man who is responsible for the death of millions, has his own agenda, designed to seize control. The others attempt to safeguard their own lives while wavering between Malenkov and Beria.

Movie Review The Death of Stalin

Stalin’s children arrive to further add to the confusion. Daughter Svetlana (Riseborough) mourns her father and tries to keep her alcoholic brother Vasily (Friend) in check. And Field Marshall Zhukov (Isaacs) brings the stoic discipline of the military into the mix as the uncertainty within the council spills over to the country.

After Stalin’s funeral, the tension between the quarreling would-be leaders comes to a head, forcing decisions to be made that will affect a nation.

Movie Review The Death of Stalin

This was an amazing indie film. What can’t be discerned from my bare bones description above, is that this film is a comedy…a dark one, but full of humor nonetheless. The casting is brilliant, with great energy between the actors. The director made the decision early on to allow the actors to speak in their own accents, rather than attempt Russian ones. The result is Russian historical characters speaking in a mix of English and American accents…and it works.

The portrayals of these players struggling for power after Stalin’s death is over the top, which creates much of the humor, and yet they accurately convey historical events. I always fact check after watching a movie based on real people and real events. The Death of Stalin gets the important details in, although they compress the timeline somewhat.

Movie Review The Death of Stalin

I was amazed to discover that some of the craziest scenes were true! The concert that had to be repeated, after locking the audience into the room, happened…a bit differently than portrayed but Stalin did request a recording of the performance. After failing to set up the recording equipment, the radio manager made the musicians repeat the concert so that Stalin got his record.

Many people in Stalin’s Russia did crazy things, because they were afraid. The dark part of this comedy is realizing that the fear the people lived in was real. Being in the wrong place, witnessing the wrong thing, displeasing those in authority resulted in immediate execution, or worse, a slow torturous death at the hands of Beria and his men.

As a satire, this film works incredibly well. The humor is needed, or this would be a heavy movie to watch. I appreciated being able to break the tension through laughter. And I appreciated as well the glimpse into another country’s history. It’s good to be reminded occasionally of what has transpired in the past so that history does not repeat itself because we are unaware.

I look forward to seeing what Armando Iannucci presents next.

Movie Review The Death of Stalin