Movie Review | The Death of Stalin
Movie summary: Moscow, 1953. After being in power for nearly thirty years, Soviet dictator Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin takes ill and quickly dies. Now the members of the Council of Ministers scramble for power. (IMDb)
I first watched The Death of Stalin on the last day of 2017 and that was enough to secure it a place in my top ten movies for that year - albeit in tenth place because I didn't want to put it too high in case of recency bias. Having watched it again for this review, I can definitely say it deserved to place much, much higher.
To start with, let's get the most uncomfortable part of the movie out of the way: it can be a little disturbing at times to find so much humour in the dealings of a group of men responsible for - or, at least heavily involved in - the deaths of millions. Fortunately, the story concentrates on how horrible they are to each other rather than the Soviet people.
And yes, there is the usual caveat of historical accuracy taking a side-seat in order to make the narrative work a little more cleanly. I'll admit to not knowing a great deal at all about this time or the people involved, but I still knew enough to find a couple of moments that didn't quite work as well as the rest of the movie,
Then again, that does show just how good The Death of Stalin is - the only time it dips below it's consistent excellence is when history gets in the way. Even then, what we get is much better, and the movie would've suffered horribly if it attempted to remain as true to life as possible. Helpfully, it does allow some liberties to be taken with the characters and that's no bad thing.
After all, much like last year's Chernobyl, the actors all use English or American accents to avoid having to spend their time and efforts concentrating on sounding a particular way instead of giving their best performance. Especially as this is such a dialogue-heavy movie, it would've been hard for the cast and audience to keep track of what was being said with fake accents abound.
The cast are all excellent too, with perfect comic timing making them enjoyable to watch at length, but with deathly serious moments from a few to make it clear that, while we may be laughing at them for now, these guys were monsters who do not deserve to be looked on fondly at all. And while The Death of Stalin is certainly an ensemble movie, there are three who stand out above the rest.
First is Simon Russell Beale, who plays Lavrenti Beria. He's probably got the most serious of the central roles, with any humour coming from shock at how easily he finds it to be horrible and knowing he'll get away with it. Still, Beale plays the part perfectly and you'll neither be surprised or even too upset at how he ends up.
Next is Steve Buscemi, who plays Nikita Khrushchev - if you know anything about 20th Century history, you'll recognise the name and know how the movie ends for him. Buscemi is great playing a guy constantly playing a game that he's not just trying to keep up with, but somehow win - he's manic, but manipulative and even downright scary at times, especially at the very end.
However, the star turn and stealer of every scene he's in is Jason Isaacs as Field Marshal Zhukov. He arrives pretty late in the movie, but is such a force of nature that he grabs the story by the scruff of its neck and doesn't let go until the infighting is over. Isaacs is absolutely hilarious in the role and has pretty much all the movie's biggest laughs, yet still managing to get across that Zhukov is absolutely not someone you want to cross.
Focusing on these three might seem harsh on Michael Palin and Jeffrey Tambor as Molotov and Malenkov, but they can't quite overcome the fact that the men they're playing are pretty spineless and weak. They're both great in their roles, providing plenty of humour although lacking in the same threat as the above-mentioned trio and ultimately makes them marginally less memorable.
The rest of the cast are excellent too - it really is unfair to not mention a lot of them, but it would only add extra words to this review to tell you the same thing: they're great. Nearly everyone is humorous in one fashion or another - Rupert Friend as Vasily Stalin is pretty much just constant comic relief - but the comedy never drags the movie down into farce, even if some of the events and behaviour we see actually are farcical.
The Death of Stalin also feels disturbingly relevant today, depicting a pack of politicians desperate to further their own careers and ambitions at the expense of both political rivals and the people they're supposed to be governing. This is very much one of those movies where it wouldn't take a great deal to switch the tone from comedy to tragedy - such a shame we can't so easily switch it the other way in real life.
The Death of Stalin is a hilarious movie despite the extremely dark natures of the people involved and the constant back-stabbing and side-switching that goes on. It's the relationships between the characters where the most fun is to be had, especially Jason Isaac's Zhukov, who arrives late but absolutely steals the show.