By Liz Lopez
“The Death of Stalin” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and subsequently screened during Fantastic Fest in Austin last September. Political satirist and HBO comedy series “Veep” creator, as well as being an Emmy award-winning and an Oscar-nominated director, Armando Iannucci has co- written a hilarious satirical screenplay with David Schneider and Ian Martin from Fabien Nury’s graphic novel. Set in 1950s Moscow when the tyrannical dictator Joseph Stalin suddenly dies, the power struggle begins between his core team of ministers, Nikita Khruschev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), foreign affairs minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) and secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) about 65 years ago. The script and the performances are very funny and the ensemble cast should not be missed.
The diverse English-speaking cast members do not necessarily look, nor sound like Russian characters. They really do not sound the least bit Russian – and the film has English dialogue – American, British and Scottish. This might bother some viewers, but I found it to be just part and parcel of how the ministers are so different despite having some common goals after the death of their leader.
The setting may be in another country, but there are similarities to how some American politicians and their staff behave that it is hard not to compare the characters. Fair warning, the dialogue is full of insults and expletives, many coming from the drunken Vasily (Rupert Friend), Stalin’s son who is best kept out of sight for his own good and that of everyone else. On the contrary, Stalin’s daughter (played very well by Andrea Riseborough) has a more shrewd and complex personality as she tries to work out a plan for her own safety amidst the chaos.
One of a few favorite scenes is from the dysfunction that begins after Stalin is found on the floor. The few ministers immediately available try to find the city’s only remaining doctors, given that Stalin had had many of the competent M.D.s detained (or worse). Prior to Stalin’s demise though, Stalin calls Radio Moscow about the evening’s concert and requests a recording of the performance. It is incredibly funny to watch what the engineer is forced to do to get that recording, especially in times when technology is not the same as today!