Based on the events following the demise of Josef Stalin and the political power vacuam that followed, Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a solidly comedic psuedo-historical farce that works incredibly effectively when the jokes are flying, but falters whenever it attempts a more sombre approach. Much like Iannuci’s previous work In the Loop, the film follows a group of party officials with their own comic quirks as they scheme and stumble their way around the political arena, though you don’t need any measure of political savvy to enjoy the humour. Unlike that film, the stakes are high, and the price for failure higher. Death hangs around every corner and off the belt of every armed guard, and while for the most part these semi-constant executions are played for laughs and manage to illicit them, sometimes they’re delivered with a particular ferocity that stops the film dead in it’s tracks.
The film’s closest approximation to a protagonist is Nikita Kruschev. He charatcer bears a strong resemblance to his true life counterpart, though the same cannot be said for his looks. Still, Steve Buscemi is good in this role, and his constant skittishness and obfuscativeness are the source of a great many gags. He’s not given too much time for development, and his character is rather bland in comparison to the rest of the more cartoonish caricatures that fill out the rest of the cast, so he tends to get lost in the shuffle and is never the most interesting one on screen. Opposite him is Lavrentiy Beria, played in an evocatively vicious and cunning manner by Simon Russell Beale. I was impressed by how true to life Beria’s character was, and the film to it’s credit spares no expense in presenting his litany of sexual and political crimes highlight just how terrible of a person he was, even if this is the only history it tries to replicate.. Jeffrey Tambor is competent as an absurdly moronic version of Georgy Malenkov, and Michael Palin has his moments as the shyly temperamental Vyacheslav Molotov, but the real standout of the film is Jason Isaac’s portrayal of Field Marshall Georgy Zhukov. He’s a no nonsense character with no poise and a bad attitude and every second he’s on screen is absolutely mesmerising in it’s hilarity.
The photography was rather standard and didn’t have any distinct style of flair to it, and the soundtrack followed suit, methodically plodding along in the background. Though, the film’s use of colour was quite interesting, with red and green motifs running throughout the film giving the visuals at least some flair. The sound mixing was a sore point, as everything was equally levelled except the soundtrack which is very low, half the time giving gunshots no kick to them at all and the other half having them be slightly louder than everything else. The costuming was quite accurate to the period and the set design followed suit, and it all had this nicely intentional monolithic feeling, making everything look very official and important which greatly aided the situational humour. The pacing is fantastically quick, leaving little time for uneventful pauses and instead choosing to cram as many jokes in as it can whilst still remaining cohesive from a storytelling perspective.
The tonal changes are sudden and present mostly in the first and third acts. They don’t ruin the comedy by any measure, but they numb it by repeating the jokes except without a punchline or comedic timing, expecting the audience to suddenly take seriously what they were supposed to be laughing at only moments before. The last ten minutes of the film or so are played completely straight and it feels like something out of a bad drama in the way that it tries to illicit sympathy for people that it’s shown to be terrible. If these moments supposed to be political commentary on the Soviet Union, they’re executed atrociously, bolstered by the poor inconsistent historicity. If it’s a commentary on politics in general, then it feels forced and not terrible relevant. When The Death of Stalin feels like being a political parable it’s rough and unpalatable. Fortunately these moments are brief, and when it feels like being a comedy it’s impressively well paced and genuinely hilarious.