“ The Death of Stalin” is a timely farce that centers on men in power and men in fear and in loathing. Moscow 1953, a piano concert, and the enemy list, begin a film I tried to like, but found hard to equate the Three Stooges ( maybe five here) and kill lists.
Bugged offices, under-the-table rubles, round-ups of enemies, and boyish pranks set the pace. Stalin’s line, “ Time for a cowboy movie!” is one of the most apt. Bodies roll down stairs, and no one can remember who is alive or dead.
Early in the film, Director Armando Iannucci has Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) felled by a stroke and lying in his own piss. What to do? All competent doctors have been booted to Siberia or the Gulag. How can Stalin battle for his life while lying in a puddle of indignity?”
Stalin’s cohorts all jockey for position in the Central Committee. Jeffrey Tabor plays Malenkov, next in line of succession. He is not a “take charge kind of guy”, and this is a “dog eat dog ” kind of culture. Cries of “irreplaceable” and “a calamity” ring ironically as Krushchev, beautifully enacted by Steve Buscemi, and Beria ( Simon Russell Beale) , who heads the security service move in. “ I have documents on all of you.” , Beria spouts as the factions collide.
Stalin’s drunken daughter and equally besotted son, Vasily ( Rupert Friend) offer more humor at others’ expense. “ I may have to shoot myself like mother.” Friend delivers adolescent put-downs like, “ You are not a person, you are a testicle.” “ You are mostly made of hair.”
Stalin dies; the city is cordoned off; orders roll, and condolescenes stream: “ He is the lamb, no the milk of socialism”. Yet, Stalin’s dacha is looted, his staff carried away and shot before the period of mourning. “People get killed when their stories don’t fit.” one character says.
Nothing works ; elevators are out-of-order; Roll Royces tangle in a stand-off in the driveway. Toilets are flushed to hide speech, but they don’t flush. Trains are cancelled. As Stalin lies in state, Krushchev is still picking out curtains to drape the coffin. Should they be ruched or not?
The sound track is the best part of this film, which is based on comic books. “The Death of Stalin” has been banned in Putin’s Russia, who would rather not see Josef Stalin as a tyrant, who authorized the killing of hundreds of thousands of his own people. Mocking and lampooning a political culture that rules by fear is just too close to home where despots preside for me to laugh at.