MOYES ON FILM: Death of Stalin mixes obscene violence with slapstick

Performances by Jeffrey Tambor and Steve Buscemi make for an enjoyable film

Robert Moyes

Monday Magazine columnist

Fans of HBO’s profane political satire Veep will doubtless savour The Death of Stalin, which shows what writer-director Armando Iannucci can get up to when he shifts from TV to the big screen.

Set in 1953 and very much based on the historic record, Death is a grotesque, darkly funny account of what happened when the murderous Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin keeled over from a massive stroke. As the surviving members of the ruling inner circle scheme to fill the power vacuum in a country run by terror – literally millions of citizens have either been starved to death, shot, tortured or shipped off for years to frozen gulags after being suspected of ideological impurity – it’s a high-stakes, endlessly cynical game where losing could be fatal.

Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent) is technically the new interim ruler, but he is so weak and maladroit that two others are desperate to elbow him aside. As well as the ambitious and wily Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi, Fargo) there is the sadistic chief of the secret police, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), who’s been the country’s Torturer in Chief for many bloody years. These men are vicious and ruthless parasites, yet their every move and utterance is made with an eye to maintaining the appearance of political purity, lest they somehow be judged enemies of the state by their jealous rivals.

From the looting of Stalin’s fancy dacha just hours after his death, to arguing whether it’s appropriate to temporarily postpone the relentless purging of suspect citizens, this is palace intrigue at its most gangsterish – especially when schemes culminate with the casual executions of hapless minions trapped between rival factions.

The obscene violence is regularly contrasted with gleefully lowbrow slapstick, such as when Stalin’s body is lugged around like a sack of potatoes, or the ineffectual Malenkov makes clumsy efforts to find a cute young girl as a stage prop for his first public speech. But the script never quite fuses the comedy with the horror, and the result is that Iannucci’s satire lacks the coherence of a classic black comedy such as Doctor Strangelove.

That said, the performances are very enjoyable and the dialogue is studded with viciously zingy one-liners. And without being overt about it, the film nicely conjures up hints of the toxic circus that is presently assailing the White House under Trump.

Rating: ***1/2

Stars: Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor

Directed by: Armando Iannucci

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COMING SOON:

Chappaquiddick

Jason Clarke (Everest, Zero Dark Thirty) plays Ted Kennedy in a drama that explores the scandalous car accident wherein the American senator caused the death of a former campaign worker … and his own presidential aspirations. With Kate Mara and Ed Helms.

Beirut

A U.S. diplomat flees Lebanon in 1972, only to be drawn back to war-ravaged Beirut a decade later to assist the CIA in life-or-death negotiations. Starring Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike.

Rampage

Dwayne Johnson stands tall in a violent thriller about a primatologist who gets drawn into a high-stakes battle as some genetically modified gorillas go crazy, leaving a terrifying swath of destruction in their wake.

Dolphins

Droll hipster Owen Wilson narrates this live-action Disney film about a young girl dolphin named Echo that can’t decide if she’s ready to forego the fun of childhood and tackle some adult responsibility.

Avengers: Infinity War

The universe is once again in utmost peril and a mix-and-match cavalcade of superheroes – from both the Avengers realm and the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise – team up for some righteous ass-kicking and witty trash-talking.

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