Stalin keels over — “Urk!” Thud! — in “The Death of Stalin,” then it’s comedy! Tonight!
That’s comedy! With firing squads. And summary executions. And midnight roundups of terrified people.
Also betrayals. (Lots of those.) And terror. (Lots of that.) And paranoia. (Ever so much.)
Handled, as it all is, with mordant mastery and a pitiless gimlet eye by writer-directorArmando Iannucci. Based on a pair of French graphic novels by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, “Death” is a pitch-black sendup of the events surrounding the demise of the Soviet dictator in 1953.
It’s a rogue’s gallery of a movie and all the significant rogues are here: Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Molotov (Michael Palin), Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse), Field Marshal Zhukov(Jason Isaacs) and Lavrenti Beria(Simon Russell Beale).
Of all the men in the Soviet leadership who launch a mad, clumsy scramble to succeed Stalin (felled by a cerebral hemorrhage at the start of the movie), it’s Beria, Stalin’s spy chief and deadliest henchman, who’s the most devious and ruthless player in the succession struggle.
Beale, a British theater star, owns every scene he’s in (and there are a lot of them), blustering, guileful, almost gleefully unapologetic as his Beria schemes and plots to outwit and intimidate his colleagues. His power lies in the fact that he knows where all the bodies are buried (and there are a lot of them), because he’s the one who put them in the ground.
The humor comes from the fact that these characters, clad in comically blocky, ill-fitting suits, are all engaged in a paranoid dance, with egos running amok. All are looking fearfully over their shoulders, trusting no one, and with good reason. They all know circumstances can turn on a dime and how today’s top man can be tomorrow’s firing squad casualty.
It’s just all so confusing, even to these men who created the edifice of terror that was the Soviet Union under Stalin. Or as Malenkov says mournfully, “I can’t remember who’s alive and who isn’t.”
When Stalin collapses and Khrushchev suggests calling a doctor, one of his colleagues reminds him, “All the best doctors are in the gulag or dead.”
This material demands that Iannucci walk a tightrope: not be too heavy-handed, nor too dismissive of the import of what he’s portraying. He doesn’t walk it. Instead, he smoothly waltzes, and deals with the material with surefooted ease.
He’s aided in this by the terrific performances of Beale and Tambor, who plays Malenkov as a clueless, spineless dunce, and Buscemi whose Khruschev is a devious fussbudget, scampering through the woods as Stalin’s household staff is being rounded up to be secretly purged, prompting a colleague to ask with admiration, “How can you run and plot at the same time?”
They’re all dunces, but deadly ones, and the laughter they provoke is tinged with horror.
The banality of evil, ladies and gentleman. It’s never been as banal, or as funny, as it is in “The Death of Stalin.”
The Death Of Stalin
4 stars out of four
Cast: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend and Olga Kurylenko.
Director: Armando Iannucci
Rated: R for language throughout, violence and some sexual references.