Review: The Death of Stalin

Russian history is not my best subject. I know about the revolution and a little about the events that followed but virtually nothing after 1945. So the historical inaccuracies in this won’t bother me.

I think the trailer says it all, really. This is a farce and it’s a really funny one.

The plot, as the title suggests, begins with the death of Stalin and follows the manoeuvring for power that followed. Bear in mind, Stalin was not a nice person. He was responsible for a lot of deaths, torture and persecution. And the men in his inner circle were equally reprehensible. What this film does is play that for laughs. Now this is something I would normally find tasteless or even offensive and it won’t be to everyone’s taste. Possibly my ignorance of the reality is why I didn’t feel that way this time.

The film opens with a classical concert being broadcast live on the radio. Stalin is listening and calls to request a recording. But the concert isn’t being recorded. The panic that ensues and the frantic scrabbling to provide the recording Stalin wants is simultaneously hilarious and does a good job of demonstrating how much the regime was feared. As we meet the other communist leaders this juxtaposition of horror and humour continues. Executions are ordered, but with a throwaway line that brings a laugh even as we recoil from finding such a thing funny. Tension builds until you just have to laugh. The central event of the first half is the titular death of Stalin and its drawn out as long as posible. Then there is the funeral, and then the power struggle.

All credit to the director and cast, here, because any wrong beat would have ruined it. Simon Russel Beale is deliciously slimy as the odious Beria, Jeffrey Tambor hilarious as the weak-willed Malenkov, Steve Buscemi perfect as the scheming Khrushchev and Jason Isaacs chews the scenery as war leader Zhukov. And those historical inaccuracies? Since none of the main actors makes any attempt to sound remotely Russian, there’s a strong signal that nothing is really meant to be taken seriously.

All I really ask of a comedy is for it to make me laugh. The Death of Stalin made me laugh. A lot.

For comparison:

Rotten Tomatoes - The Death of Stalin
Rating on 20 October 2017