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The Death of Stalin – Movie Review

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The Death of Stalin – Movie Review

Rating: B- (Okay)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Elevation Pictures

There is humour to be gained from almost any subject matter, especially when it’s a power so corrupt, mocking it is the best way to bring it down. With Russia returning to the daily news landscape, it’s understandable why Armando Iannucci would tackle a piece of their history in a satirical light. There are certainly moments of successful humour in the picture, but there is a surprising amount of dead air as the dry comedy doesn’t entirely stick the landing most of the time. The cast is capable, but for those unfamiliar with how the death of Joseph Stalin rocked the nation, the humour might be a bit too in-jokey.

The most successful directorial decision made by Iannucci is having the actors perform in their natural accents, rather than adopt fake Russian accents. This gives them the freedom to not feel restricted by their voice and instead let their mannerisms produce the laughs. Steve Buscemi might be the stand-out as one of a number of Stalin officials attempting to gain power. There is a frequent air of annoyance as he attempts to deal with the calamity of the situation. Jason Isaacs is also quite funny as a military commander who continually messes with everyone. Andrea Riseborough manages to portray multiple emotions as Stalin’s daughter, although she gives a few amusing lines as she tries to understand the strangeness of her father’s cabinet.

The Death of Stalin attempts to craft a plot out of this idea, but it instead moves aimlessly along and there are frequent stretches where the film just isn’t as funny as it could be. It’s also difficult to attain laughs when the movie cuts to scenes of Russians being tortured and killed. It sort of sucks the fun out of the air. Charlie Chaplin perfectly managed to balance the darkness of what was happening in Europe and the ridiculousness of Adolf Hitler’s bombast in The Great Dictator and The Death of Stalin falls short of accomplishing that goal. Iannucci directs the film surprisingly straight, which may have taken the air out of how silly Stalin’s cabinet is behaving.

A lot of the jokes in The Death of Stalin also depend on knowledge of the various participants and the aftermath of Stalin’s death. For those who walk in well aware of 20th century Russian history and who each person is, there will be plenty of knowing chuckles. For those in the dark, it becomes a trickier sit and by the end of the film, the desire to peruse multiple Wikipedia pages may have been extinguished. It’s often said that if a joke has to be explained in order to be funny, it probably wasn’t that funny to begin with.

The Death of Stalin provides some moderate chuckles with the actors clearly giving the project their all. The potential is definitely there to create a rip-roaring hilarious comedy out of this material, but it just sort of sputters along. The joke gets old rather quickly and the satire never fully gets as biting as it should be. Most of the film merely consists of squabbles, which probably happens in many an administration. It’s a comedy that can’t quite find the proper tone for the whole piece. There are certainly moments of inspiration, especially when these men have to move Stalin’s body around, but more could have been done with them fighting for power.


Stefan Ellison

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