Planet Slop Film Club #2: The Death Of Stalin

By Sean Broadhurst
Tue 31 October, 2017

The Death Of Stalin gets the Planet Slop Film Club treatment in our second collaborate review. 

This week the Planet Slop Film Club ventured into the Soviet Union for slightly strange telling of The Death Of Stalin. As always, spoilers lurk ahead.

Chris McGowan

Who would have thought brutal authoritarianism could be so funny?

The Soviet Union wasn’t known for its sense of humour but if The Death of Stalin is anything to go by it was a non-stop laugh riot. I cannot emphasise enough how funny this movie is. From start to finish I was in stitches. Couldn’t breathe at times. I even went as far as to slap my knee, laughter alone was not sufficient.

I should have expected as much, given the cast. Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Isaacs, Paul Whitehouse, and Michael “Lumberjack” Palin? Are you kidding me?

The performances are distinctly not Russian, not even vaguely. Tambor and Buscemi are just themselves, while Isaacs, in the absolute stand-out performance of the film, plays Field Marshal Zhukov as a Yorkshireman. And it all works, superbly in fact. They might sound wrong for the geographic location, but each performance captures the core tone of their character. And makes for an endlessly quotable film.

This, obviously, means the film sacrifices historical accuracy, but let’s be frank: if you came to a satirical comedy starring Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov expecting accuracy you need to have a word with yourself. Everyone in the film is decidedly unstatesmanlike, and that’s the source of much of the comedy. These heroes (if you’re Russian) of Russia’s past are shown to be just like us — they’re awkward, vulgar, and common — and by contrasting this light-hearted normalcy with the horrifically violent atrocities these men commit throughout the film, Iannucci allows us to laugh at what should make us cry. That’s the heart of the satire: This is what authoritarianism looks like, and it’s utterly absurd.

Chris’ rating 9/10

Tanya Guvi

The Death of Stalin is an epic hour and three-quarter riot which delivers laughter and disgust in equal measure.

Some pedants will get hung up on the lack of historical accuracy, but a story of this magnitude requires a certain level of finesse if you’re going to tackle it truthfully, and that is clearly not what this film set out to achieve; besides Iannucci, although having tampered with the original timeline, doesn’t shy away from the tragedy of Stalinism, as the story is filled with fragments violence and cruelty.

TDOS had me in stitches throughout, from the array of accents, most notably Jason Isaacs‘ interpretation of Marshal Zhukov as a Yorkshireman, to, in parts, a kind of slapstick comedy. The opening scene in the concert hall establishes the tone perfectly, landing us right in the thick of the action and holding strong for most of the film’s 106-minute run time.

This is a disturbingly accomplished comedy, one of the funniest I’ve seen in a long time, and for sure worth a second viewing.

Highlights? Kaganovich’s confusion when he asks, ‘How can you run and plot at the same time?’. But what really topped it off for me was Rupert Friend‘s portrayal of Vasily Stalin, who delivered my favourite one liner of the entire film: “You’re not a person! You’re a testicle!”

Tanya’s rating 8/10

Sean Broadhurst

Though I would disagree with critics who say you shouldn’t satirise certain historical events, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find a comedy about Stalinist Russia appealing, but the first scene in the concert hall silenced the doubts I had going in. It was like watching a new episode of The Thick of it; the actors hadn’t even bothered to adopt Russian accents and some of the actors — I’m thinking mostly Cockney Villain Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) and Jason IssacsGeorgy Zhukov — revel in being as blatantly un-Russianlike as possible — it worked brilliantly.

I know little about the aftermath of Stalin’s death, but the first scene established immediately that this wasn’t a film to take seriously — the aim was to make the audience laugh not give them a history lesson. I was in fits of laughter throughout, the only criticism I could level at TDOS would be that, at times, the tone seemed muddled. Some disturbing scenes were followed one liners or pieces of physical comedy that, though funny, seemed out of place and though these moments are few, there are enough of them to be noticeable.

What impressed me most was how we saw the corrupting influence of power and ambition (through Bushemi) and how at the end I was deeply disturbed when the dark side of these seemingly hapless pencil pushers and politicians is laid bare — if an execution with Michael Palin in attendance can make you squirm, something is being done well.

Sean’s rating 7/10

Daniel Dobinson 

Amongst the comedy and the darkness of the movie, there is also the sense of a heart. We are made to feel for Khrushchev (Bushemi) then we watch as he transforms from an initially hapless figure, kneeling in a puddle of urine, into a ruthless, cynical manipulator – leaving us to ask, ‘Who was the true antagonist of this movie?’ Khrushchev or Beria. (Simon Russell Beale)

We also see the fallout with Stalin’s children, his daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and son, Vasily, (Rupert Friend) and how the loss of their father will now change the whole trajectory of their lives — a reminder of what Stalin did to 40 million people — “No harm will come to you” he says, a piece of dialogue that filled me with unease, even when delivered from the hapless Khrushchev.

All in all, this movie is fantastic — I can’t remember the last time I felt self-conscious about laughing so much in the cinema. I couldn’t recommend it enough. Jason Isaacs’ performance alone is worth the price of admission.

Daniel’s rating 8/10

Final Slopinion

Armando Iannucci’s latest release is fantastic. Unequivocally. It’s blend of biting, well-timed dark humour, along with the comedic paranoia and manoeuvring of its central players, gives this movie a razor-sharp edge, as well as a resonance that stayed long after the lights had come up.

The claustrophobia of the cinematography serves the narrative and tone perfectly — right from the opening scene, we are intimately connected with the characters and this gives the sense that we’re complicit in their scheming. The score fades into the background somewhat, but that doesn’t detract from the film, this is very much a dialogue driven piece though complimented at times by hilarious physical comedy.

Opening in the hours before Joseph Stalin’s death, the story that unfolds gives us a dark spin on the events that followed his demise. Paddy ConsidinesComrade Andryev sets the comedic tone of the world, when he is instructed to call Stalin in precisely 17 minutes. His palpable fear of getting the time wrong, and the hilarity of watching him try to reseat a full opera house, and proclaiming “nobody is going to die”, ease us in to the idea of ‘comical’ mass murder of which there is plenty over the next 106 minutes.

With a cast so stocked with talent it would have been difficult to pick a stand out performance but Jason Isaacs’ arrival — as Georgy Zhukov — we all agreed, unanimously, stole the show. The decision to allow Issacs to play this role in a broad, Yorkshire accent, was a masterstroke and without it, the scene between Zhukov and Khrushev (Steve Bushemi) planning their coup d’état, probably would not have garnered the laughs it did.

Overall, we found TDOS difficult to criticise, none of us are historians, but we all like to laugh. Stalinist Russia seldom gets the attention that it arguably should from the film industry, but a comedy isn’t going to be the film to break that habit and represent the horror of the time faithfully. All comedy can achieve is to take things that are, perhaps, difficult to discuss, that make for ugly viewing, and turn them on their heads — to look past the initial horror and shitness of the world and ask, ‘what’s over here?’ maybe we can get a laugh out of it. None of us left the cinema feeling that Stalinism was great but for parts of the 106 minutes we could forget about that.

Final Slop Rating 8/10