The Death of Stalin
Director: Armando Iannucci
Writer: Armando Iannucci
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale
Is The Death of Stalin Any Good?
The Death of Stalin is everything you’d expect from director Armando Iannucci. The Thick of It creator has returned with a film that is sharp, witty and funny. Following Stalin’s death, the men left in change of the country jostle for power, while attempting to keep the in-fighting and chaos from the public eye. Despite the stakes being raised - a wrong step can land you dead in Soviet Russia, rather than just jobless - the film portrays the idea that even in the most powerful places, politicians are merely no different than a regular office, just with their squabbles and ridiculous moments being amplified tenfold.
Where the film really works however, is in its balance between the comedy and history, as it gives us a true, albeit satirical, insight into how the Soviet Union was run. The movie opens with Comrade Andryev (Paddy Considine) scrabbling to re-seat an orchestra and an audience following a performance which Stalin wants the tape of, despite sadly not being taped. The result is chaos, as he tries to pack plump people off the street in to make up for missing audience members to not alter the acoustics, but what hangs over this is the possibility of doom.
The Death of Stalin feels unlike most films and that is too its credit, but where you may have hoped to be rolling in your seat with laughter, there are a few too many jokes that only elicit a wry smile. Still however, one of the funnest satires of the year.
"I'm the peace maker and I'll fuck up anyone who gets in my way."
Why Is The Death of Stalin in English and What's with All the Accents?
One of the aspects of The Death of Stalin that is instantly noticeable is the fact that none of the cast are using Russian accents, let alone speaking in Russian. Armando Iannucci has spoken in many interviews about this - stating that his decision not to have the actors speak in either their own accents or other regional accents, felt justified when he was visiting Russia doing press for the film and reporters thanked him for not forcing hack Russian accents onto the actors.
Iannucci had already identified the other problem with accents. The Soviet Union was sprawling, and not only did the characters have different accents from being from different areas of Russia, many were from outside of the country, such as the Georgian Beria. Instead what we are given is a plethora of accents from Britain and America (from Steve Buscemi’s Brooklyn drawl, to Adrian Mcloughlin’s aggressive cockney, or Jason Issacs’ broad Yorkshire accents). These instead allow the actors to inject their varied personalities into the characters while reflecting the character's’ own backgrounds. Most importantly however, it means that instead of distracting from the comedy with bad accents, we’re the humour is enhanced by the ridiculous surrealism of it all.
Was The Death of Stalin Based on a Graphic Novel Comic?
What many cinemagoers may not realise about The Death of Stalin, is that it was originally a graphic novel, or comic book, before being adapted for the big screen. The book, also called by the same name, was created by writer Fabien Nury and artist Thierry Robin and has been re-released alongside the movie’s theatrical distribution.
In creating his film, Armando Iannucci relied heavily on the novel, using many of the key moments from the text, as well as trying to transform the visual set pieces and the general tone into a film, even including the more periphery moments, such as people being arrested or freed, giving you more than just the politician’s eye view, similar to the graphic novel. The main difference however comes from the events being compressed and sped up, perhaps being slightly less historically accurate, but making for a more filmic experience. The other way the two seem to differ is within the dialogue, which is very similar to Armando Iannucci's previous work, The Thick of It, being reliant on this, perhaps in a way that the graphic novel never could be due to being a far more visual medium.
What is the Plot of The Death of Stalin?
As the title may suggest, The Death of Stalin tracks the days following the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, as well as the in-fighting and bickering between the heads of the Soviet Union over who will hold the power and how the Union will progress. The film opens on the subplot of Comrade Andryev, who frantically attempts to arrange a concert to be re-performed in response to Stalin’s demand for the tape. Stalin himself entertains his top deputies, while they try to keep the great leader happy. In the days following, after they find him unconscious and he eventually passes away, factions begin to show as the previously united committee jostle for position while trying to keep a mournful demeanour. Malenkov becomes the de-facto leader, but is ill-equipped for the role and bumbles his way through trying to look like he is, with girdles and a forced re-enactment of a Stalin photo with a young girl, who is now sadly much older.
The KGB’s sinister leader Lavrentiy Beria, appears to be the natural successor, continuing the brutalist dictatorship well, but Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev becomes his main potential adversary. When Stalin’s children, the outspoken and unstoppable Svetlana and the drunken and arrogant Vasily show up to mourn their father, they cannot but help but make further problems for the already chaotic funeral arrangements. As army head Georgy Zhukov, played by Jason Isaacs, turns up, the group decide to lead a coup against Beria, arresting and eventually killing him. By the time the leaders address the nation, Khrushchev has firmly cemented his place as leader, but it is shown, with Brezhnev in the background, that his leadership will not last too long.
How much of The Death of Stalin is the True Story?
As anyone with a small knowledge of world history will have known, The Death of Stalin is based on a true story. However as with many film adaptations and especially ones that are as ridiculous and comic as this one, the plot and characters often deviate greatly from real life.
Surprisingly however, much of the plot of The Death of Stalin is true to life, albeit slightly condensed and reordered. Stalin was indeed found semi-conscious on his floor, having urinated himself. Beria did talk ill of the great leader when he was unconscious but then demurred during moments of lucidity - this two-faced nature perhaps being unsurprising considering in Molotov’s memoirs he claims that Beria said he had had Stalin poisoned. During the illness and mourning Stalin’s son and daughter were called, but Vasily was so drunk and angrily shouting at doctors that he was sent home.
Nikita Khrushchev, Georgy Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, and Lavrentiy Beria were in charge of organizing the funeral. Crowds were so great that a crush did kill around 100 people, similar to the problems with crowd control shown in the movie. There was no anointed successor, so there was no clear transfer of power, with Malenkov, Beria and Khrushchev all emerging as key figures, with the system of collective leadership being restored to stop autocracy and reforms immediately implemented. Economic constraints were eased, while a mass amnesty for non-political crimes was introduced, halving the countries inmate population.
"Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it. Kill him, dump him in the pulpit. And I'll leave the rest up to you"
How Similar do the Actors in The Death of Stalin Look Like Their Counterparts?
The actors chosen for their roles in The Death of Stalin are all very well qualified for comedy performance, but what is quite surprising is how much like their counterparts look like the actors playing them.
The photos opposite show the historic Russian figures depicted in the Death of Stalin, alongside stills from the films of the actors playing them. These are:
- Jason Isaacs as Georgy Zhukov
- Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana Stalin
- Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov
- Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev
- Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria
- Adrian McLoughlin as Joseph Stalin
- Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov