Review: The Death of Stalin

6 March 2018

Small screen satirist Armando Iannucci raises his comedy-in-incompetence shtick to new heights in a bizarrely English-language feature adaptation of a French graphic novel based on the antics of Soviet executives after the death of their leader, Joseph Stalin. Filtered through two degrees of creative license, and stamped with Iannucci’s trademark sense of humour, The Death of Stalin fails to achieve any intelligent satire, but instead provides a generous slop of visual and verbal slapstick against the backdrop of a dark and tumultuous era in Soviet history.

The movie features the Soviet Union’s Central Committee, an entourage of middle-aged loose-skinned men who throughout the film, trip over each other’s feet in their attempt to remain in power. Each introduced with slow-motion theatricality and booming Shostakovich-esque strings, they brandish themselves with a confusing mix of Russian names, and an even more confusing mix of British and American accents. Accompanied by blaring dramatics and narrative shortcuts, the historical inaccuracy of this film is blatant but unapologetic, and so appears less as a flaw than as a humorous sidenote.

The main event, Stalin’s death, catalyses the film’s farcical descent into chaos, and it’s from these confused, scrambling moments that Iannucci’s humour materialises. However, there are less laugh-out-loud moments than expected and the level of humour is infantile in the sense that it feels at times patronising; jokes are milked to exhaustion, and 20 minutes into the film, my friend next to me leant in and asked, “Is this supposed to be a comedy?”

The problem with this film is the jarring conflict between its theme and its execution: watching a deluge of superficial comedy consume the hard, sordid realities of the Stalin era creates an ethical dissonance that becomes quite hard to swallow. The picture opens with a brief verbal acknowledgement of the Great Terror, before it devolves into an amusing sequence of events as Paddy Considine attempts to replicate a concert performance he forgot to record.

And strangely, towards the end, the film dives almost completely into seriousness, and it’s this bitter change in tone that seems to excuse the earlier frivolity, by which the wafer-thin comedy is unwrapped to reveal something tragic and real. The peculiarity of the shift is substantial and worth considering; it’s humour turned to madness turned to tragedy. The point, however, is not well formed, and it exists more like a bitter aftertaste, a foregone conclusion that follows a series of half arsed quips about a misrepresented era.

The Death of Stalin is in cinemas March 29.

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