Friday, May 17, 2019
The Death of Stalin
Based on the graphic novel La Mort de Staline by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, The Death of Stalin is a fictionalized story about the death of Joseph Stalin where several of his associates try to figure out what to do with some fighting each other to be the next leader of the Soviet Union. Directed by Armando Iannucci and screenplay by Iannucci, David Schneider, and Ian Martin, the film is a satirical political comedy that explores a power struggle within the Soviet Union as it gets out of control with those wanting to make some changes with others wanting to maintain Stalin’s legacy. Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Olga Kurylenko, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Adrian McLaughlin, Paul Whitehouse, Dermot Crowley, Paul Chahidi, and Jeffrey Tambor. The Death of Stalin is a wild and farcical film from Armando Iannucci.
It’s 1953 in the Soviet Union as Joseph Stalin is content with his rule until he suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and later dies leaving government officials unsure of what to do next and who should take over as the leader of the Soviet Union. That is the film’s plot as a whole where it is about the death of a leader of a superpower and everyone trying to figure out if they should tell the country that their leader had died as well as who should replace him officially. The film’s screenplay by Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, and Ian Martin with contributions by Peter Fellows explore a real-life event as it is dramatized into a farce that relates to power struggles, conspiracies, and all sorts of shit that happens following the death of a world leader. The story opens with Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLaughlin) listening to a live orchestra as he wants a recording of it where its lead radio broadcaster Yuri Andreyev asks the orchestra to play the entire concerto all over again for Stalin which prompts pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) to slip a note into the recording sleeve that Stalin would find while he listens to the recording.
It is when Stalin would suffer his hemorrhage as Interior Ministry head Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) would be the second person to find Stalin in that state after the maid was the first to report what had happened. Moscow Party head Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) would get the word as they all try to cover things but also contact Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and his troubled son Vasily (Rupert Friend) as it leads to more chaos. The film’s script play into these meetings between various officials including the Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotiv (Michael Palin) to discuss funeral plans while there’s some backstabbing, scheming, and all sorts of shit about who should be the leader with Beria making Malenkov the new leader of the Soviet Union despite his inexperience in political matters. Many would also question whether Stalin would go for anything that is happening with Khrushchev trying to fix everything as he knows that Beria is causing trouble as he also appeals to a few to get rid of Beria who is threatening everyone with blackmail as a way to maintain his position of power.
Iannucci’s direction is definitely engaging in terms of its usage of hand-held cameras as well as maintain this air of disorder throughout the course of the film. Shot mainly in Britain with some exterior shots set in Kiev, Ukraine as the exterior of 1950s Moscow, Iannucci play into some of the absurdity that goes during the final days of Stalinism where he would shoots scenes of people getting killed though it’s shown mainly off screen while there are these moments of a list of who to kill and such as it is presented in this amazing dolly-tracking shot at a prison. While there’s some wide shots of the location including some striking wide compositions of a few conversations that goes inside the Kremlin and at other places. Much of Iannucci’s direction is intimate with its usage of hand-held cameras to capture some of the conversations whether it’s in a close-up or in a medium shot.
Iannucci also uses a lot of profane language for the film as it play into the frustration and chaos that ensues following Stalin’s death as well as the planning of the funeral that Khrushchev is tasked with. The scene of people walking to see Stalin’s casket for a state funeral where Khrushchev, Beria, Molotiv, Malenkov, and several others are bickering quietly while not facing each other as their backs are surrounding the casket. The film’s third act that would involve the actions of Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) who adds to chaos while Malenkov believes he has authority where he is in denial over his new role. Iannucci’s approach to the climax relates to this end of an era but also the beginning of something new though the ideas of the old would come to haunt this new era that would play into the demise of the Soviet Union. Overall, Iannucci creates a whimsical yet exhilarating film about a power struggle among government officials following the death of Joseph Stalin.
Cinematographer Zac Nicholson does amazing work with the film’s cinematography with its low-key approach to some of the exterior scenes at night including the streets of Moscow during a funeral march as well as some dazzling lights for some of the scenes at the halls of the Kremlin. Editor Peter Lambert does excellent work with the editing with its usage of jump-cuts to play into some of the humor as well as the film’s chaotic tone. Production designer Cristina Casali, with set decorator Charlotte Dirickx plus art directors Jane Brodie and David Hindle, does incredible work with the interior of Stalin’s home and his office as well as the rooms and halls inside the Kremlin and in the prisons. Costume designer Suzie Harman does fantastic work with the uniforms including the ridiculous white one that Malenkov would wear during the funeral as well the numerous medals that Zhukov wears.
Hair/makeup designer Nicole Stafford does superb work with the look of Stalin as well as the scar in Zhukov’s face. Special effects supervisor Neal Champion, along with visual effects supervisors Laurent Gillet and Ronald Grauer, does terrific work with some of the film’s minimal visual effects including some set dressing for the exteriors to present 1950s Moscow. Sound mixer Martin Beresford does wonderful work with the sound as it is largely straightforward as it also play into the chaos in some of the arguments that is heard in another room as well as the sounds of gunshots from afar. The film’s music by Chris Willis is brilliant for its orchestral score that feature bombastic string arrangements that is similar to the traditional Soviet music of the times while its soundtrack feature an array of classical music pieces.
The casting by Sarah Crowe is great as it feature some notable small roles from Justin Edwards and Nicholas Woodeson as a couple of orchestral conductors for the concerto that Stalin wanted a recording of, Sylvestra Le Touzel as Khrushchev’s wife Nina, Diana Quick as Molotov’s incarcerated wife Polina who is freed after Stalin’s death, Gerald Lepkowski as a young Leonid Brezhnev, and Adrian McLaughlin as Joseph Stalin as this leader who rules with an iron fist until he suddenly falls ill and then dies. The trio of Dermot Crowley, Paul Chahidi, and Paul Whitehouse in their respective roles as deputy chairman Lazar Kaganovich, council chairman Nikolai Bulganin, and political official Anastas Mikoyan as three men who are trying to figure out who to side with as well as ponder what to do next for the Soviet Union.
Rupert Friend is hilarious as Vasily Stalin as Stalin’s alcoholic and unstable son who believes his father’s death was a conspiracy created by Westerners while Andrea Riseborough is fantastic as Stalin’s daughter Svetlana who is trying to make sense of what happened but is also angry over the chaos that is happening where Riseborough gets a few moments to be funny. Paddy Considine is superb as the Soviet radio broadcaster Yuri Andreyev who is trying to get a recording of a concerto to happen while Olga Kurylenko is terrific as pianist Maria Yudina who hates Stalin as she reluctantly re-plays the concerto and later his funeral. Jason Isaacs is excellent as Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov as this no-nonsense military official who is upset over his army being confined to the barracks as he also has some simmering issues with Beria. Jeffrey Tambor is brilliant as Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov who becomes Beria’s puppet as he believes he is going to become the next leader despite his inexperience and denial over the fact that he has no clue on how to run a country.
Michael Palin is amazing as Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov as a political official who was close to Stalin as he deals with the aftermath as well as do some political maneuvering knowing that Beria is a liability to the future of the Soviet Union. Simon Russell Beale is incredible as Interior Ministry head Lavrentiy Beria as this political official trying to maneuver, backstab, and bullshit his way into power while trying to maintain some idea of what he feel could be beneficial to the Soviet Union. Finally, there’s Steve Buscemi in a phenomenal performance as Nikita Khrushchev who was then the Moscow party head as he is trying to figure out what to do next as he is tasked to plan Stalin’s funeral while realizing that he has to take the reins in leading the Soviet Union as it’s a comical and engaging performance from Buscemi.
The Death of Stalin is a spectacular film from Armando Iannucci. Featuring a great ensemble cast, witty commentary on political scheming, gorgeous visuals, and a sumptuous music score and satirical views on history. The film is definitely a wild comedy that isn’t afraid to be profane nor is it trying to follow a historical event in total accuracy in favor of studying a group of individuals fighting for power. In the end, The Death of Stalin is a sensational film from Armando Iannucci.
Related: In the Loop
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