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Death of Stalin

There is a major problem about Armando Ianucci’s film inasmuch it treats a grotesque subject – the tyranny of Stalin and the subsequent scramble for power – as a comedy … and a not very funny one.

The film opens with a live performance of the Moscow Radio orchestra and Stalin wants a recording of it but none was undertaken.

So they have to drag a new audience off the street, a conductor out of bed and re-play the performance.

However most of the remaining  action centres around the Central Committee, portrayed as a bunch of hard-swearing thugs that would not be out of place in Goodfellas. Simon Russell Beale is sinister as Chief of Police Beria. The rest of the gang speak in a diversity of accents from cockney to American to broad Yorkshire.

The American actor Steve Buscemi plays Nikita Kruschev, Paul Whitehouse Mikoyan and Michael Palin, Molotov. The last  two are of course well-known comics. This does not mean comedians cannot act – look how good Hugh Laurie was in The Night Manager – but their various accents reflect a film and direction that oscillates between terror with unpleasant torture scenes and round-ups and comic dialogue. I did laugh on occasion – the scene where they try to carry the body out of the bedroom like a piece of unwieldy furniture is undeniably funny – but most of the time I either did not laugh or felt uncomfortable for so doing. At two hours it drags its weight too.

Ianucci went to considerable pains to say it was authentic. Yet Marshal Zhukov, one of the great generals of World War 2, is portrayed as a popinjay with a broad Yorkshire accent.

Mrs Kruschev, renowned for her  peasant ugliness, is a petite blonde. Were not the contents of Stalin’s study immaculately preserved, not all summarily removed?

There is little for the female audience to warm to, Andrea Riseborough is fine as Svetlana but she can handle more demanding roles and there is a feisty concert pianist who slips in a vicious message in the recording presented to Stalin but otherwise it’s about men bickering for power. The director of the wonderful In The Loop has found an odd subject matter for his talents and like Stalin himself this film is best soonest forgotten.

About Neil Rosen

Neil went to the City of London School and Manchester University graduating with a 1st in economics. After a brief stint in accountancy, Neil emigrated to a kibbutz In Israel. His articles on the burgeoning Israeli film industry earned comparisons to Truffaut and Godard in Cahiers du Cinema. Now one of the world's leading film critics and moderators at film Festivals Neil has written definitively in his book Kosher Nostra on Jewish post war actors. Neil lives with his family in North London. More Posts