"THE DEATH OF STALIN" — 3 stars — Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Andrea Riseborough; R (language throughout, violence and some sexual references) ; in general release
If you ever pictured Steve Buscemi as former Soviet leader Nikita "We Will Bury You!" Khrushchev, congratulations! Your long-awaited casting has come.
Armando Iannucci's "The Death of Stalin" is a black comedy about the chaotic turmoil that followed the death of the infamous Soviet leader Josef Stalin in 1953, and Buscemi is just one familiar face cast as a Cabinet member who gets caught up in the scramble.
The film opens as a group of underlings desperately gathers an orchestra for a repeat performance of a Mozart concerto, after learning a little too late that Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) wanted a recorded copy. In the process, pianist Maria Veniaminovna Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) slips Stalin a note outlining her detest for the murdering monster, but he doesn't get a chance to read it before collapsing in his private quarters of a brain hemorrhage.
With Stalin on the verge of death, members of his Cabinet converge to plan their next move. Assassination orders for figures such as Vyacheslav Molotov (Monty Python's Michael Palin) are put on hold as higher-ups, including Khrushchev (Buscemi) and Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), get the lay of the political land.
The begrudging consensus seems to be that Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is next in line to take over for Stalin, but that doesn't put a stop to all the drama, which eventually involves Stalin's daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Field Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) and continues to roll through Stalin's viewing once the leader finally expires.
It's a dark, comic portrait of the kind of political intrigue where anyone can pinball from ordering executions to finding themselves at the wrong end of a pistol with little to no warning. The insanity on screen is obviously played for laughs, and the dark comic tone has a way of muting the horrors of the situation (for the most part, the film's violence takes place off screen, and the film's rating mainly comes from R-rated profanity).
"Death of Stalin" was featured earlier this year at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, and Iannucci — who also created the TV series "Veep" — suggested that everything in the film that seems made up was true, and that only the boring bits were invented to patch together the story.
Interestingly, all the major players speak English in their natural accents, which puts the focus on the twists and turns of the story rather than in trying to re-create the historical authenticity of the event. As such, the performances from Buscemi and Tambor have to be rated for their comic timing more than for historical nuance, and of the group, Beale stands out the most as he feels the walls of conspiracy closing in.
Iannucci also insists that the film went into production before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, so any contemporary commentary would have to be seen as coincidental. Regardless of how you feel about any current administrations (Russian included), "The Death of Stalin" is a vivid juxtaposition of the realities of horror and comedy.
"The Death of Stalin" is rated R for language throughout, violence and some sexual references; running time: 107 minutes.