Tropic Sprockets  / The Death of Stalin

By Ian Brockway

Armando Iannucci (In the Loop) has directed a madcap romp about power in the 1950s Soviet Union, entitled “The Death of Stalin.” The bold film has great moments of verve and daring to be sure. While it no doubt made Putin and Russian officials so uneasy as to declare a ban, the film has such a staccato rhythm to its dialogue it may frustrate an inattentive audience. Its invariably dark and deadpan tone is its strength, but at times it is also a weakness.

One day, Joseph Stalin gets a letter of scathing criticism and it gives him a heart attack. He falls to the floor covered in urine. Security administrator Beria (Simon Russell Beale) takes center stage. This angers the power mad Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) who acts here, as he does in every film, like a New York rat, but that is the joke. During much back and forth, Khrushchev and Beria become rabid with hate as Georgy Melenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) becomes the de facto leader.

There are many verbal gags mostly about the pronunciation of terms and the following of orders. The visual jokes are funny about how to carry Stalin’s body correctly with precise pomp and circumstance. Where the film stumbles ever so slightly is in its supercharged dialogue that comes at you from every side. There are endless arguments and brash roars. Most every character talks over someone rapidly with volume. While it is evident that this is the point in portraying a government in disarray, it becomes wearing.

Rupert Friend is excellent as Stalin’s pathologically angry son, as is Andrea Riseborough as the dictator’s suspicious daughter. Strangely, the only cast disappointment is in the legendary Michael Palin who is not given much to do aside from sitting at a table.

But an unapologetically bold ending harmonizes the film and makes it whole.
Excluding the barking speech which is Aaron Sorkin on amphetamines, this is a solid study of idiocy and the relentless lust for power. While it is easy to think of our present administration in this light, it is also true that the savage violence depicted could include any government.

“The Death of Stalin” is ultimately a serious tale about false information and base disrespect rather than a comedy. This is all the more reason for us to be on guard.

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