Films are at the best they can be when they know what they want to do, and then do it well. I realise this may come to some as a pretty basic revelation, but even still, it is vastly important. A delightfully trashy ‘B-movie’ that involves low budget set pieces and some corny dialogue, but knows that that is what it is, and is content and happy to be that, will forever be a more enjoyable a watch than an ‘Oscar movie’ that wishes to be deep and intellectual without truly understanding how to do so.
‘The Death of Stalin’ is neither a crappy ‘B-movie’ nor a brooding, ‘intellectual’ thought-piece; it is merely an exceptionally dark film that wishes it was a comedy. And due to this, there are so many radical jumps in tone throughout the film that hardly any of the jokes landed, and when they did, though few and far between, I almost didn’t laugh for fear of being judged by the people watching around me.
Don’t get me wrong – I am always up for a joke at the expense of good taste, but there was something too dark about this film that meant it was impossible to find most of it even amusing.
The plot is simple, as all good British comedies should be, but often falters in its ability to drive itself forwards. There are moments where political debates that mean nothing are seemingly more important to the script than anything we actually care about happening. In a ‘comedy’ of this nature, the plot needs to be constantly spinning, causing new scenarios for the characters to be funny in, and it often seems that the only way for the film to get us there is to have people talk about those things happening, in ways not hugely interesting.
In essence, Stalin, as he did in real life, dies of a haemorrhage, and after being found, his seven right hand men convene to organise the country and plan his funeral. I’m afraid that is the best description I can give without going scene by scene, or revealing too much. While I don’t doubt that that sounds incredibly basic, the bulk of the ‘action’ comes from the concoction of farcical schemes by the members of the Council.
This is when the cast begins to shine. They all just seem to have so much fun. And it is for these scenes that I give the film credit. Because it plants these very effective seeds of each relationship, and it is a true joy to watch, Steve Buscemi in particular, as they interact with each other, and plan how they will take advantage of the situation. If the film only did this for an hour and three quarters, then frankly, I would have no problems with it. It would remain as a fun time had by all.
The problem with the film arises with the introduction of Simon Beales’s character, Lavrentiy Beria, the Head of the Secret Police. While the film primarily tries focus on the moments it could get laughs from, he adds a level to the film that is too dark for the type of picture it is trying to be.
In the first couple of scenes he is in, there are torture and executions galore, and with not a huge amount of gags to compensate. Of course, that too can be a trap. There is a joke later in the film that is so dark that I winced (I won’t go into it for fear of my more squeamish readers telling me that I’m a sadist, and my less squeamish readers calling me a wuss).
But Beria is such an evil character (although portrayed fantastically by Beale) that he has no place in a film where all the characters should be at least redeemable, by necessity, as the jokes need to still be funny. It makes it ten times harder for the other characters to return to a place where the audience are willing to laugh if the last scene ended with a prisoner being tortured for information. It just puts strain on the film as a whole.
The final scene (or at least, narratively the final scene) feels like something that has barely anything to do with the film that ‘The Death of Stalin’ tried to be. It is so gruesome, so unapologetically honest, and goes into such detail about Beria’s crimes that it shares more with an actual period drama about the time after Stalin’s death, than one that kills Stalin with a laugh (literally).
This is a terrible shame, because the film had so many good things going for it. It very well could have been a fantastic comedy to remember, but instead, I fear, I at least will remember it as something that could have been so good, but just didn’t make it.