The Death of Stalin – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Based on the graphic novel The Death of Stalin by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, this satiric film looks at the power-grabbing aftermath following the unexpected death of brutal Russian dictator, Joseph Stalin.

The Death of Stalin. Copyright 2018. IFC Films.

Set in Moscow in 1953, Stalin’s most trusted political comrades, the sadistic Beria (Simon Russell Beale), conniving Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), and bumbling Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), immediately begin jockeying for positions in the new regime. Attempting to win back favor among the populace who had previously been impoverished, incarcerated or had beloved family members executed, the men go to outrageous lengths to give the appearance of supporting each other and their country, while secretly plotting in the shadows.

Devious Power Plays

Although each man schemes to make a smooth transition that places him in the role of the newly appointed leader, unexpected complications arise every step of the way. Even getting a confirmation of Stalin’s death is difficult, because every competent doctor has been executed or imprisoned, leaving only the very young, very old, and otherwise incompetent to administer care to the people.

Other members of Stalin’s Council of Ministers have their own power plays, and Stalin’s two adult children, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend) show up for the funeral and complicate matters. Svetlana’s main concern is her own safety now that her father is no longer alive, and Vasily (depicted as an alcoholic narcissist) is focused almost exclusively on the nonsensical speech he plans to deliver at the funeral.

Dark Comedy

Although the oppressive times and grave injustices inflicted on the people make a tragic backdrop, the darkly comical story of the political insiders satirizes their ineptitude and lack of vision caused by overriding selfish interests. The humor comes in different forms, from physical comedy to one-liners to over-the-top characterizations, and presents the story in a surprising way.

Buscemi (who like most of the other actors makes no attempt to adopt a Russian accent) depicts one of the few likable characters, despite his own long list of crimes and misdeeds against his people. Amid the panic, desperation, chaos, and machinations following Stalin’s sudden demise, Buscemi’s mesmerizing portrayal of Khrushchev is the one to watch. In noteworthy supporting roles, look for Michael Palin as a weak-willed comrade and Jason Isaacs as a ferocious general. For those who enjoy historical rewrites and the dark comedy of political satire, this film does an excellent job of both.

The Death of Stalin

  • Following the sudden death of Joseph Stalin, his Council of Ministers goes into a panic scurrying to secure their individual futures.
  • Stars: Steve Buscemi, Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Palin, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Olga Kurylenko, Rupert Friend, Paddy Considine
  • Director: Armando Iannucci
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Run Time: 97 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, violence, and some sexual references)
  • Additional Information: Watch a trailer for this film.




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