The Death of Stalin (2017) (Review)

The Death of Stalin won't be everyone's cup of tea: my mother proclaimed it as 'the worst film all year' but I've seen people who absolutely love it, putting it at the top of their year-end list. It once again comes down to comedy being a wholly subjective entity. Screened early as part of Odeon's Screen Unseen series, the film will probably earn a cult following upon release - but I can't see it being an easy sell for general audiences.

The Death of Stalin chronicles the Soviet power struggles occasioned by the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, as his various cabinet members try to scrap their way to the top. His key ministers consists of Nikita Khruschchev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffery Tambor), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Anastas Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse) and Mezhnikov (Jonathan Aris). Packaged as a drama-comedy and written by Armando Iannucci (who also directs), David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows, based on Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin's graphic novel of the same name, there is so much testosterone flying around that you would be forgiven for believing that women didn't actually exist in Soviet Russian in the 50s.

The Death of Stalin is defined by its ridiculousness: partly-delirious, partly-dull and always scattershot in structure and consistency, the elements are in place but the execution disappoints. The four-person writing team are scrapping almost as viciously as Stalin's committee members to ensure their voices and ideas are heard and fulfilled, leading to an uneven and jumbled screenplay: the film's most lethal flaw. To its credit, The Death of Stalin manages to envision these characters well enough, with some sharp dialogue provided, but the period comedy-drama lacks clarity. How do Stalin's members rank? We have titles flying around left, right and centre but we are without the context for audiences to rationalise this information. Who does these character represent and what are they dynamics between them? We sense the 'Boy's Club' vibe loud and clear but it fails to consider the inner-workings of the group. When the scheming begins, we have no sense as to how and why a support network is formed, and whether it's genuine, because the film cares more about lame insults to bother with the mechanics of the committee and characters.

Stalin felt over-complicated on a frequent basis, something you can attribute to too many cooks spoiling the broth. If it's not an infuriating sexual assault joke, it's a venomous insult; and if it's neither of those things, it's a swear word.  Some of the one-liners land and the comedic timing is almost impeccable, but most of it fails to stick and many more are completely forgettable when all is said and done. Adapting from a graphic novel is already shaky ground to begin constructing your project on - but the writers seem to cling to one central idea and so the tone becomes stale and monotonous. Act one had won me round but the further we venture with this one idea, the more concentration dwindles.

Armando Iannucci won me over with his ambition and his direction is undeniable solid. With some tremendous production and art design across the various sets and costumes, perfectly suitable to the tone and environment, it is a visually formidable piece - particularly when you consider that this is a British production, a notoriously difficult industry to gather funding in. The visual scope exceeds the scale of the production and Iannucci dances with these production elements effectively. Generally, his work is solid if little more and he helms this barmy idea with confidence, even though the script lets him down completely: it constantly walks the tricky line of comedy as satire but there's no variety in the tone, or focus in the writing, and so it becomes a unsatisfying, scattered muddle.

Ultimately, it is the ensemble cast that prevent The Death of Stalin from being a complete wash-out. They are a committed, sharp bunch with high levels of experience and skill between them. The comedic timing is terrific, mastered by the leads and supporting cast alike. There's no weak link in this chain: although stand-outs emerge, almost everyone receives their moment to take control and shine. Simon Russell Beale will likely earn most of the acclaim, with a purposely savage and ferocious performance as power-hungry, lion-like Beria, chief of the secret police. Likewise, Steve Buscemi supplies a sweeping performance as the malevolent Khruschchev, continually ready to strike. Rupert Friend plays the unstable son of Stalin in a performance that frequently threatens to become melodramatic - but Friend has a control that prevents it from doing so, a true testament to his skill and talent. Every one of these real-life figures possess an animalistic quality, which is helpful for the actors (and, in parts, the audience) in envisioning their counterparts. It's just such a shame that this does not come from the screenplay itself, as so much clarity could have been offered with a more streamlined, focused screenplay with less people squabbling to have their idea heard.

It was always going to be an uphill battle - creating a film about Soviet Russian power struggles - and you have to admire Iannucci's ambition. Essentially, The Death of Stalin is so scattershot that feels like a Saturday Night Live sketch stretched to feature-length runtime; like most episodes of SNL though, it's pretty hit and miss as to whether it lands. There will be people who enjoy The Death of Stalin more than I did (and certainly more than my mother did) and I admittedly chuckled a handful of times but the farce becomes too stale and inconsistent to be enjoyed and by the time the credits rolls, the whole affair is tiresome.


Summary: Despite an impressive ensemble cast and clear ambition from Armando Iannucci, The Death of Stalin is too scattershot for its own good. It takes one singular idea and stretches it into a feature-length, lending to a disappointing and inconsistent end product.