Review / ‘The Death of Stalin’ (MA) *** and a half

AS Lord Acton said in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887: “All power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Which of the 20th century’s three absolute rulers used absolute power most dreadfully? Adolf Hitler? Chairman Mao Tse Tung? Or Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, a.k.a. Stalin?

All three set out to give their people better lives. But if you had to pick a winner in the “who-was-worst” class, many would choose Stalin. Not too many laughs in the USSR while he was General Secretary of the ruling Communist Party.

Writer/director Armando Iannucci has made a wonderfully humorous film that begins on the night of Stalin’s death and gets increasingly comical all the way to the execution and cremation of Lavrenti Beria, the psychopathic brute with a predilection for prepubescent girls when not loyally implementing party policies that had become Stalin’s.

The film is more than a short course in Soviet political panic as the surviving members of the Politburo jockeyed for position in December 1951 when both tyrants died.

It’s a brilliantly written, staged and acted account of a Kremlin in utter confusion. The events ring credible. The characters are real people. And we in the audience laugh mightily at their antics, ratiocinations, changes of mind and political course and jockeying for power driven by ambition and self interest.

Steve Buscemi is the ultimate winner Nikita Khrushchev. Simon Russell Beale is chillingly effective and terrifyingly funny as Beria. Michael Palin is diplomatically dithery as Molotov. As Field Marshal Zhukov weighed down by a chest-full of decorations, Jason Isaacs is a bombastic pleasure to watch. Andrea Riseborough is Svetlana Stalin and Rupert Friend is her brother Vasily.

At Palace Electric, Hoyts and Dendy

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