The excitement in the air at Fantastic Fest was palpable on Monday night. People had been debating for days about what might possibly play as this year's big secret screening. In the past, festival audiences have been treated to everything from Paul Thomas Anderson bringing his personal 35mm print of "There Will Be Blood" to Guillermo del Toro dropping by to show off "Crimson Peak." It usually ends up being something that people talk about for a long time, and everybody wants to get in.
It seemed as though the most popular guesses going into the evening were "Blade Runner 2049," "The Snowman," or Eli Roth's reboot of "Death Wish." Fantastic Fest Creative Director Evrim Ersoy came out and took a few guesses from the crowd and then didn't reveal a thing before the house lights went down.
An IFC Films logo appeared on screen, blowing away any guess that I had mustered up. When the title card for “The Death of Stalin” came up, some members of the crowd applauded. I was still in the dark, having not read about this feature and its recent premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. There were no standard opening credits aside from the title, so I wasn't sure of the cast or crew, but as a fan of "The Thick of It" and "Veep," it only took about 10 to 15 minutes of dialogue before I was confident that I knew who was behind it all.
Armando Iannucci's first feature film since 2009's "In The Loop" is an uproarious look at the transition of power in the Soviet Union when Joseph Stalin suddenly died in 1953. Adapted from a French graphic novel, it features an expertly assembled cast to portray a compelling moment in world history.
Jeffrey Tambor ("Transparent") stars as Georgy Malenkov, a man who briefly became the leader of the Communist Party in the wake of Stalin's demise. Steve Buscemi is Nikita Khrushchev, the first secretary of the Communist Party who becomes irritated when he is tasked with putting Stalin's state funeral together. Legendary Monty Python member Michael Palin is Vyacheslav Molotov, the minister of foreign affairs who remained loyal even though his wife was arrested for treason and taken away. British character actor Simon Russell Beale has one of the film's very best performances as secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria. He served as one of Stalin's most ruthless yes-men until he saw the opportunity to try and reverse course after his death.
While the film depicts an accurate portrayal of historical events, it is tinged with the sharp-witted dialogue and extreme profanity that one has come to expect from Iannucci's writing. A scene where the group of Cabinet members is gathered around Stalin's body, desperately trying to determine the best course of action, is the first of many outrageously absurd moments. They bicker about finding the best doctor to examine him (after all, all the best doctors in the country have been executed by these very men) and then gather to watch the autopsy. In a more straightforward historical drama, this could have been a somber moment, but not in this version of events.
Heaps of praise will be deservedly lumped onto the core cast members, but some of the movie's sharpest moments come from the supporting cast. Rupert Friend ("Homeland") is devastatingly funny as Stalin's drunken mess of a son Vasily. Andrea Riseborough plays his sister Svetlana and earns several of the best rapid-fire jokes in the screenplay. But it is Jason Isaacs ("The OA"), as the leader of the army who turns up at the funeral and supervises a military coup in the film's final moments, who steals every damn moment of any scene he's featured in.
Subversively examining power politics, "The Death of Stalin" just so happens to work as an accidental commentary on our current state of political affairs. Interviewed in the post-film Q&A, Iannucci mentioned that they shot the movie last summer before "the event" (aka Trump's election) and so any parallels in the story to the power dynamics at play in U.S. politics right now are just his "good fortune." As the audience chuckled, he noted: "At least in this one, he does die."
"The Death of Stalin" will be released overseas next month and by IFC Films stateside in 2018.