Review: 'Death of Stalin'

Kyle Winfield | Contributing Writer

Originally published March 2018

When one thinks of “comic-book” movies, usually the first thing to spring to mind would be men or women in tights, followed by punching and a few one-liners for good measure. However, not a lot of people would think about political intrigue, the death of tyrannical dictators or the portrayal of historical figures as bumbling backstabbers. If, when you think of the former rather than the latter, when you hear “comic-book” movies, then it’s time to learn about “The Death of Stalin.”

Directed by Armando Iannucci and based off of the graphic novel “La mort de Stalin” by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, “The Death of Stalin” is a political comedy film starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Olga Kurylenko, Jeffrey Tambor, Rupert Friend, Andrea Riseborough and Jason Isaacs. It tells the story of the internal Soviet power struggle following the immediate death of Josef Stalin in 1953.

The story, while most certainly not wholly faithful to the events following Stalin’s death, is still one full of intrigue and twists, as high ranking members of the Communist party vy for control over the party and country. Most of the film’s humor, which is admittedly pretty dark, comes from the interactions between those trying to seemingly undo many of Stalin’s repressive policies in order to curry favor with the oppressed Soviet populace.

That being said, despite this film being marketed as a comedy, there are some moments of brutality to be found within. Almost as if to remind those viewing that these events, while absurd, still happened, and are based off of the deaths and executions of actual people. With that in mind, the way this film retells historical events does seem reminiscent of the 2008 film “Valkyrie,” albeit much funnier.

The set and costume design also adds some narrative context, showing the opulence of the buildings and clothing that the Soviet elite find themselves surrounded by. When compared to the way the rest of the Russian populace dresses and lives, adding another layer to the absurdity of the film.

The performances are astounding all around, with some standouts being Tambor’s portrayal of Georgy Malenkov as a weak pushover, who tries and fails to establish dominance. Another standout is Beale’s characterization of Lavrentiy Beria as a devious cutthroat monster, for lack of a better term. Yet another highlight is Friend’s comedic performance as Vasily Stalin, the drunken, paranoid, idiot son of Josef Stalin.

When looking at the performances, another similarity with “Valkyrie” becomes apparent, in that the actors eschew the Russian accents that the characters would normally have. Instead, they use their respective British and American accents.

The cinematography also shines in this film, with many of the shots of the Kremlin and Red Square looking absolutely gorgeous. When focusing on some of the more interpersonal scenes, the camera takes on a handheld quality, giving it a documentary-like quality, at times.

Overall, “The Death of Stalin” is an excellent and thoroughly entertaining film, so much so, that sticklers for historical accuracy may overlook the aforementioned inaccuracies. Keep in mind that this film’s release is quite limited, so finding a theatre that is playing it might prove to be a challenge. However, should you find yourself with the opportunity to see “The Death of Stalin,” I would highly recommend it.