BFF Review: The Death of Stalin

It may sound like a dry, historical drama, but The Death of Stalin is anything but. It’s a lightning paced, irreverent comedy crammed with zingers and laugh out loud moments.

To give you an idea of the style, it’s directed by Armando Iannucci, who wrote and directed the TV shows The Thick of It and Veep and the film In the Loop. Like those titles, The Death of Stalin is about a group of political figures in damage control mode scrambling to spin events to their own advantage while playing their party members against each other. In this case, it’s the members of the Soviet regime protecting their own individual interests in the wake of Stalin’s death while appearing to be loyal to the late dictator and his subjects.

The film opens with a live performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no 23. During the performance, being broadcast on radio, Stalin phones to say he wants a copy of the recording. The problem is, it’s not being recorded. In a mad panic, the producer of the concert, Comrade Andryev (Paddy Considine) orders the audience and orchestra to stay back after the performance to repeat the whole thing so they can record it. When the conductor is knocked out before they begin, another conductor has to be dragged out of bed to conduct the orchestra in his dressing gown.

This sets the tone for the film. It’s fresh, vibrant, dense with ideas and the two hours fairly zips by. Crammed with gifted comic actors such as Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin and Jeffrey Tambor, this is not the kind of stuffy film where anglo-saxon actors approximate Russian accents, the cast speak more or less in their natural accents and the film actually comes across as more authentic because of it.

Stalin’s adult offspring are played by Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough, and they prove to be just as colourful as the self-interested, conniving party members. Friend in particular comes out all guns blazing as the overprivileged Vasily.

Based on a graphic novel of the same name, Iannucci and his team of writers do an astounding job of maintaining the smart, rapid-fire dialogue while increasing the layers of deception among the characters. They’re also not averse to mixing in a little physical comedy, often at the expense of Stalin’s body, which can’t expire soon enough for all concerned.  

The original score by Christopher Willis is like a Tchaikovsky mash up, with lots of recognisable musical motifs popping up and then quickly fading out.

If you’re a fan of intelligent comedies, then this is a rare treat.

✭✭✭✭1/2

The Death of Stalin is currently screening at the Cunard British Film Festival.

Richard Leathem @dickiegee