Cinema Review: The Death of Stalin

The glowing endorsements of this movie might lead you to believe that it is, if not an uproarious comedy, then at least a mirthful satire. Certainly, there are enough laughs, especially in the first act, but it evolves into a scathing, even brutal study of alpha-male politics at the highest executive level. How much of it is strictly based on fact is for an expert in modern Russian history to pronounce, but it feels horribly ‘right’. The murderous tyrant, ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), has a stroke, but all of the doctors who might save him are dissidents in the gulags – ‘call anyone. If he lives he’s a good doctor, if he dies nobody will know’. Such cynicism is rampant throughout. As members of the politbureau, Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Malenkov, the ‘heir apparent’ (Jeffrey Tambor), Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Molotov (Michael Palin), after whom the cocktail was named, are the four most likely to assume power. No mention is made of the outside world – this is a harshly lit study of four men in a closed shop, scheming and conniving and manoeuvring within constantly shifting and deceitful alliances to promote their own standing. When you get beyond the jokey double-speak of the Yes, Minister roundtable meetings, the satire evaporates to be taken over by a chilling understanding that government (regardless of what shade of the spectrum you might barrack for) can be determined by people who don’t gives a rat’s about ‘the people’. Personal ambition and self-preservation drive all. A film of predominantly interior scenes, with dialogue that demands you take notice, it also wants you to take sides, but without being dogmatic about it. As somebody who can remember Khrushchev, I had trouble identifying Buscemi in the part (physically and facially, he doesn’t fit), but in the end it’s irrelevant. Out of the conniving and mistrust emerges an almost happy ending, and Jason Isaacs brains it as the no-holds-barred Field Marshal Zhukov. 

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