Fantastic Fest Review: THE DEATH OF STALIN Is Unfiltered Theatrical Idiocy

Armando Iannucci brings staged satire to the screen.

The Death of Stalin feels like a play. More specifically, it feels like a British farce, somewhere along the lines of Peter Shaffer (think Black Comedy, 1965), and I realize the theatrical comparison has already lost some people. The stage and the screen are two wildly different mediums, and transposing the former to the latter isn’t always a success. Denzel Washington’s Fences feels very much like a filmed version of an August Wilson production and it’s dead boring outside of the caliber of its lead performances, but Iannucci succeeds where so many s have failed by making the audience a participant. The Death of Staling feels like a play, but doesn’t feel like watching one. It feels like being in one, and it’s a raucous, hilarious, hard-hitting play at that.

The film screams “artifice!” from the get-go, casting (almost exclusively) British and American actors in its Russian tête-à-tête, a mad grab for power that can’t help but echo Brexit and Trump and all their contemporaries. It hinges stylistically on the affects, mannerisms and physical dynamics of stage acting, shedding any and all sense of subtlety and allowing its Americanized and Anglicized real-life Soviet leaders to wear their hearts and their intentions right on their sleeves, and the restrained filmmaking augments this. The shot selections and lighting are all about proximity to the characters. Where any great cinematic drama would at least attempt to tell its story through light and lingering looks, Iannucci foregoes the notion of subtext itself. What you see is what you get, because as we’ve had to learn off late, true idiocy in the realm of politics is so fucking bad at disguising itself. 

Jeffrey Tambor’s George Bluth-esque Georgy Malenkov, Steve Buscemi’s New Yorker Nikita Khrushchev, Simon Russell Beale’s cartoonishly villainous Lavrentiy Beria, Michael Palin’s shaking-in-his-boots Vyacheslav Molotov, and so on and so forth, are the USSR’s new backbone in the wake of Stalin’s demise – a demise that we not only see, but one that’s followed up by some good old fashioned physical corpse comedy. Actors enter and exit his office and position themselves around his body like they’ve stepped from the wings into the spotlight. Their grief is mostly performative as they follow the specific Governmental procedures of what to do and how to mourn in the wake of such an event, but even the planning of Stalin’s funeral can’t go a minute without them trying to stab each other in the back. They’re idiots, each and every one of them, and the film makes no effort to redeem them whatsoever.

This would work against most other films, but Iannucci has no interest in any deeper examination of men who want power. That power and their pursuit of it is exactly how they see themselves, and The Death of Stalin isn’t interested in asking questions about what drives them. It knows the answer already, and it knows you know it too. They want more and more and more, and they’re willing to be as small and mean and petty as necessary. 

Fascism has no subtlety, and the terrifying grandeur of Stalin’s U.S.S.R. is the last place you’d find it anyway. There is a cinematic enormity to how these men are introduced, often in slow-motion and with their own title text (Jason Isaacs’ war veteran Georgy Zhukov gets one of the best hero shots this side of Django Unchained), but as soon as each man has had his moment we return to the snide whispers and backroom conversations of conspirators, only these performances are calibrated for whoever’s sitting in Row Z of your favourite West End theatre. Iannucci takes us up close and personal, often getting right in between characters in the midst of important tasks – like carrying around Stalin’s body, which happens more than once! – but his lens is never used to expose what’s being hidden. It’s used to show us the farce that is fascism itself. Every double standard and secret intent is out in the open, as these hilarious performers project absolutely everything on the page without prejudice.

Andrea Riseborough and Olga Kurylenko get to play the closest thing to sincere, as Stalin’s daughter Svetlana and Soviet pianist Maria Yudina. Their respective love and hatred for Stalin is, unlike that of the men in the film, unselfish in the context of everyone around them, the dummies trying to smile and stab their way to the top. Riseborough delivers a fantastically pained performance, the straight-woman to about a dozen clowns, including and especially Homeland’s Rupert Friend as Stalin’s son Vasily. Friend is gut-bustingly hilarious as a drunk conspiracy theorist, accusing doctors of allowing “American air” inside his father’s body, and he serves to make Malenkov, Khrushchev & co. seem calm and rational to everyone in the vicinity.

As the actors huddle together, often seven or eight at a time, they attempt to maintain the air of leadership and responsibility that is expected of them, but they are so damn obsessed with besting each other even with childish insults that there is never, ever a single moment where they come off as remotely competent. It’s Burn After Reading for the Trump era, where everyone sucks and no one learns a damn thing, but watching them stumble their way to power while stepping over one another might be the most darkly comedic thing to hit screens in 2017, given that some of them succeed.

The Death of Stalin is big and broad in its telling and an absolute treat for anyone who loves stage comedy, but most of all it’s an unflinching look at just what type of idiots are running things these days.