Simon Russell Beale
THE DEATH OF STALIN
Based on a French graphic novel, The Death Of Stalin is a dark comedy starring Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin and Simon Russell Beale as members of the Central Committee who gather to decide what to do if Joseph Stalin dies suddenly, which he does.
The film sets the stage by showing the pressures of living under Stalin's rule as a live Mozart recital turns into one long chaotic night when Stalin himself demands a recording of the performance just as that performance was concluding without being recorded. This leads to an introduction of the various main characters and Stalin collapsing while alone in his office that very night. A lot of backstabbing and hypocrisy follows as the Committee pretend to be sad about this event in order to appear faithful to Stalin but also start one-upping each other in various sly ways to try and take over leadership.
The farcical nature of the events as told in the graphic novel is very much present in the film but the comedy is enhanced quite a bit and the tone, as a result, doesn't really match. Everything, from the lively performances to the bright lighting and wordy script, aims to emphasize the absurdity of various situations and keep an overall rather light tone when the graphic novel was much darker and moodier, with the comedy elements kept as subtle as possible. Admittedly, the film does hint at more disturbing elements a few times but none of that has much of an impact when the whole thing feels like a cross between an upbeat Coen Brothers film and a Monty Python sketch.
It's the excellent performances by an incredibly reliable cast (Simon Russell Beale is particularly good) that keep the film afloat and make it worth a watch. This really feels like watching a very good play with an all-star cast at the top of their game which is both a good thing and a bad thing since, while the actors and actresses are all fantastic and play off each other beautifully, it means that this isn't a particularly cinematic experience.
Again, the graphic novel, with its attention to detail and specific visual style, could capture your attention without any dialogue whereas the film relies heavily on the dialog, which can get a bit tiresome at times. Especially when unnecessary comedy routines are thrown in. Having the cast not even attempt Russian accents, however, was a clever decision and hearing Stalin speak in cockney slang is funny in itself. The film gets the idea of the graphic novel across decently enough by the end and it is an overall enjoyable watch but one wishes it had stayed a little more faithful to the source material in terms of visual style and tone.
This may not be the laugh-a-minute farce you might expect from the trailers but the cast certainly doesn't disappoint. This is a masterfully performed tale that fails to capture the graphic novel's spirit in some sense (and can be a bit tedious) but still manages to be entertaining and appropriately cruel.
Amusing yet somewhat underwhelming.