The Death of Stalin (2017)

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Directed by Armando Iannucci

Certificate: 15

Runtime: 106 minutes

These days we often hear of people being dismissed, denounced or criticised as ‘Stalinist’. This has become a term of abuse in the same manner as ‘fascist’ or ‘racist’; a useful cudgel with which the unscrupulous individual can use to beat political opponents about the head.

Armando Iannucci’s new black comedy, The Death of Stalin, offers an insight into the paralysing fear felt by everyone who lived in the Soviet Union under the rule of Josef Stalin and his brutal, sadistic henchman; NKVD spymaster Lavrenti Beria, chillingly played by Simon Russell Beale.

The best example of this gnawing fear is shown by Paddy Considine’s panic stricken Radio Moscow producer who tries to get a recording of a classical concert to Stalin after receiving a phone call from him ‘requesting’ a copy. The problem was that the concert was broadcast live; not recorded.

Stalin, (Adrian McLoughlin) is a vulgar peasant with a penchant for practical jokes and bad cowboy movies. All the other members of the politburo go along with his every whim for fear of ending up on one of Beria’s lists of ‘enemies of the people’. This tension makes for some excruciatingly bleak humour that leaves the viewers on the edge of their seats.

Great characterisations from Steve Buscemi as the calculating schemer, Khrushchev who struggles to stay ahead of Beria and keep himself free and alive; Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, the vacillating deputy to Stalin who finds himself in over his head after Stalin’s death and most notably by Jason Isaacs as the brash, no-nonsense war hero, Marshal Georgy Zhukov.

Some critics have questioned the use of humour in depicting this dark time in Russia’s history. Isn’t it in bad taste? Perhaps. Nevertheless it is a work of genius from the master of dark sardonic humour. Iannucci has triumphed again.

Reviewed by David Kerr

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