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The Death of Stalin (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 12, 2020

The Death of Stalin


Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough, Jeffrey Tambor, Olga Kurylenko, Adrian Mcloughlin, Paul Chahidi, Dermot Crowley, Adrian McLoughlin, Paul Whitehouse, Tom Brooke, Justin Edwards, Paul Ready, Yulya Muhrygina and Roger Ashton Griffiths.

Screenplay by Armando Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin.

Directed by Armando Iannucci.

Distributed by IFC Films. 107 minutes. Not Rated.

I don’t know about you, but I have been looking for a hardcore, smart, dark comedy for a while.

In a 2017 line up filled with socially conscious and familial dramas, there have been few quality comedies in the past year. We’ve caught our small doses of humor in superhero action films, some unexpected, uncomfortable laughs in a horror and comedy-turned-drama films that I’d hoped would be funnier, with only an occasional giggle gem like the Jumanji reboot or Girls Night.

It’s been a while since audiences have had the opportunity to watch anachronistic, slapstick humor a la Monty Python or Mel Brooks. The Death of Stalin, I am pleased to say, filled that need for me. This is a movie where you can’t blink. Humor is everywhere – in the staging, the dialogue, the set.

Christopher Willis’ soundtrack is equally funny and sharp, worthy of recognition. While some of the humor is subtle, the untrained ear will still hear variations of music you would expect played at a night at the Bolshoi. (For more information on the soundtrack:

The underlying period of history could not be much darker. The film does not hide the soldiers, the lists of people stolen from their homes and marched to their deaths, the ring of sycophants surrounding Stalin. The film chooses instead to bulldoze through this period without any attempt to realistically recreate these controversial figures from history – there are no butchered Russian accents to be heard! The Death of Stalin is pure satire, paranoia, and slapstick physical comedy in the midst of all of the horror.

The film is set in the final hours of Stalin’s regime – his imagined final meeting with his many sycophants, watching their every word to make sure they are not the next person on the chopping block. (Really, the parallels to today’s political climate are not missed.) From the time of his apparent stroke (which isn’t confirmed by today’s medical standards, as no doctor is called until very late in the illness), to his final death (even the very bad doctors left in Russia are able to figure out when he is finally dead).

Steve Buscemi shines as Nikita Khrushchev, as he plays out his own Cold War with Lavrenti Beria (portrayed by Simon Russell Beale) in the wake of Stalin’s initial illness and death. While Beria seems to be taking the edge, relegating Khrushchev to funeral duty, we know how history plays out, and watch their chess moves as each tries to bury the other.

Jeffery Tambor plays Acting General Secretary, Georgy Malenkov, the committee member placed “in charge” as the Russian figurehead second in command to Stalin. He has no real political power and is treated as the pretty face that he is meant to be.

Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend play Stalin’s grown children, Svetlana and Vasily, with the right combination of privilege and failure that you would expect from the seed of Stalin.  Svetlana must hold her family together as Vasily drinks away his grief and insists on speaking at his father’s funeral.

Michael Palin has not lost his comedic chops and plays off the aging role of foreign minister Molotov, adding what initially appears to be out of the loop, grieving, addled behavior (his wife has been presumed dead) becomes pointedly distracting and politically important. Palin proves again that he is always a joy to watch on the screen.

In all, The Death of Stalin, is a well-timed work, both in our need for a good laugh and a bad government to direct our laughter. I feel certain that my daughter will be quoting lines from this film for years to come.

Bonnie Paul

Copyright ©2018 All rights reserved. Posted: March 16, 2018.

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