The Death of Stalin

by Toby Woollaston

deathofstalin

Scottish writer/director Armando Iannucci (Veep, The Thick of It) has taken his politically-charged brand of comedy to the big screen and adapted Fabien Nury’s absurdist satirical comic, which parodies events surrounding the demise of one of the world’s most ruthless dictators.

In what feels like a blend of Guy Ritchie’s gangster caper Snatch and Christopher Morris’s topically awkward black comedy about incompetent British jihadists (Four Lions), The Death of Stalin depicts the tyrant’s final days and the ensuing political scramble to fill the power vacuum. In the best traditions of British farcical humour, the film follows a Soviet committee of bumbling buffoons with knives drawn and ready to plunge into the back of their respective comrades … all for the betterment of the Soviet Union, of course.   

In particular, Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Lavrenti Beria (brilliantly played by Simon Russell Beale) duke it out in a bloody political game of chess.  What is astonishing are many of the details, which feel engineered for comedic effect, but are factually true—right down to the fumbling committee unable to find a doctor available to treat the ailing Stalin, because they had all been imprisoned or executed.

Sure, cinematic liberties have bent history a little out of shape, with events condensed and players shuffled, most likely to accommodate the impressive cast.  Molotov (Michael Palin), for example, had resigned prior to the events unfolding in this film. Such tweaks will most likely irk historians … me? Nah, I’ll take Palin over some slight inaccuracies any day.

Although, those who can fully appreciate the gravity of Stalin’s murderous regime might find something a little off with having a laugh at the expense of those who suffered. There’s a nagging sense of something sour in your popcorn, a whiff of guilt at every chuckle. One could argue that such humour is at the very heart of what it means to be a “black comedy” and ultimately, it will be to personal taste if the subject matter spoils it for you.  Shame, because there are some moments of genuine comedic gold here.

Read the full review for the NZ Herald here.

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