Guard 1: [hearing Stalin’s body hit the floor with a thud] Should we investigate… ?
Guard 2: Should you shut the f*** up before you get us both killed?
Armando Iannucci’s return to the big screen was widely lauded (including on this site) and – considering 2017’s seeming epidemic of loathed politicians – a well-timed, splendidly blistering comedic takedown of some of the worst party leaders in history. The pitch-black comedy follows Stalin’s cabinet – paralysingly suspicious of each other – when the dictator dies, leaving them to scramble through the chaos and through several shifting alliances. Its excellent pacing, top-notch performances, and boldness of tone – every moment firing on all cylinders – make The Death of Stalin an absurdist masterpiece of this decade.
Iannucci’s assemblage of acting royalty are all – in an inspired move – allowed to speak in natural or comfortable accents; this lends a vividness and immediacy to the performances and proceedings. Watching Steve Buscemi’s oily Khrushchev, Rupert Friend’s blustering Vasily, Simon Russell Beale’s ruthless Beria, Michael Palin’s canny Molotov, and Jeffrey Tambor’s buffoonish Malenkov plot and plan their way to power – or at least to immunity from execution – is both a joy and a nerve-wrecking terror. Their names may be remembered in history books, but – as Iannucci envisions them – their pettiness makes them immediately relatable, ridiculous, and unpredictable.
The two most notable and delightful performances in the bunch, however, are arguably the most understated and overstated of the lot. Andrea Riseborough, playing Stalin’s daughter Svetlana, quietly commands her scenes through self-deprecating humour, impeccable timing, and a mastery of subtle physical comedy. She cuts through the showboating politicians with biting insights on their situation and her own powerlessness to protect herself or her brother. On the other hand, Jason Isaacs peacocks his way to the film’s biggest laughs as Minister of Defense Georgy Zhukov. He relishes each line, delivered fearlessly in the pit of vipers.
As a whole, Iannucci’s actors deliver his trademark acerbic wit (and memorable, often filthy, one-liners) with little pomp and circumstance, instead letting them build a ridiculous incongruity against the unrelenting terror and violence underpinning Soviet Russia. These laughs are as often because of the bleakness as they are in spite of it. The matter-of-fact way in which Khrushchev’s wife takes notes of the dinner party jokes and reminds him of the ones the dictator liked, and later, in which – in a perfect throwaway moment – a guard shoots his fellow guard in the head as they arrest Stalin’s household staff, establish that these are completely ordinary days.
Indeed, one of the film’s standout sequences has nothing to do with Khrushchev’s scheming or Vasily’s attempts not to call people unpublishable words. Instead, it follows a radio producer (a brilliant Paddy Considine) who receives a telephone call from Stalin asking for a recording of an almost-finished live performance. The slapstick which ensues as Andryev herds together a second audience and convinces the pianist to have another go – all the while trying to keep his and his colleagues’ panic in check – is a masterclass in situational comedy. The world is upside down, but these normal, entirely human reactions bring it tangibly (and hilariously) to life.
The Death of Stalin is every bit the equal of In the Loop, with higher stakes for its immediate players (a dressing-down by Malcolm Tucker seems less terrifying when faced with actual death) lending it a darker – but no less hilarious – tone. Juxtaposing life-or-death stakes with a laugh-out-loud comedy of pure ineptitude makes for one of 2017’s most absurd, unsettling, and side-splittingly funny entries. Additionally, while Iannucci’s earlier satire felt relevant, his latest work feels prescient. With today’s political climate, The Death of Stalin deftly walks the line between escapism and commentary. There are no Trump stand-ins among the principal cast (though it could be argued that the cabinet members echo the current US president’s), nor are there references to taking back Russia, Brexit-style. While based on a graphic novel, the figures and events are distinctly of their time and place. This distance created between today and 1950s Russia is comforting, letting one enjoy the shambolic proceedings without thinking immediately of current political figures. Nevertheless, its incisiveness and irreverence creates immense fun, with the same foibles Iannucci mocks in his contemporary pieces – ensuring The Death of Stalin’s timelessness.
Lastly – and a final spoiler alert – the ending deserves special mention, as it cements the film’s excellence. This conclusion is a bang which quickly turns into a whimper, as Beria is dispatched ruthlessly and Khrushchev emerges with the support of the army. The sour atmosphere lingering after the deed is done dampens Khrushchev’s and his fellow conspirators’ victory (although Isaacs’ Zhukov seems characteristically unshaken by the affair, even if his curt, cocky attitude now jars). It is an unexpected twist of tone, but a more conventionally triumphant finale would not have satisfied so deeply. The lingering bitterness emphasises the pettiness and irrationality of the film’s ineffectual power struggle – a wry ending note that anchors the film’s bizarre humour.
N.B. As our site is UK based, we work off the selection of films released in cinemas in the UK in 2017.
So to recap, here’s our Top 20 to 10…
20th – LADY MACBETH
19th – JACKIE
18th – LOGAN
17th – O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA
16th – PADDINGTON 2
15th – A GHOST STORY
14th – THE BIG SICK
13th – MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
12th – BLADE RUNNER 2049
11th – THOR: RAGNAROK
10th – THE DEATH OF STALIN
Stay tuned each and every day for the remainder of 2017 to read more on our Top 10 films of 2017!