The Death of Stalin finds farcical comedy in grim reality
Director: Armando Iannucci Starring: Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin Running Time: 107 minutes
For years with both The Thick of It and Veep, Armando Iannucci has brilliant and bitterly skewed the nature of politicians in the West, bumbling self-servingly from scandal to scandal, always better equipped at putting down each other than accomplishing anything on their own. Applying that style of satire to Soviet Russia seems like a recipe for great comedy, but the stakes are rather different in a political climate where no one is allowed to admit that scandals ever happened and putting down political rivals meant a few feet underground rather than a few creatively chosen swear words. Staging the aftermath of Josef Stalin’s death similarly to the events of an episode of one of those programmes results in a black comedy that’s frequently very funny, but the satire here has a somber note too. That the people in charge of a superpower could be as arrogant and incompetent as those shuffled off to The Thick of It‘s Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship has some fairly chilling implications. Thank Christ we don’t have to worry about anything like that these days.
Adapted from a graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, The Death of Stalin doesn’t keep its eponymous dictator dead from the very beginning, smartly keeping him alive long enough to introduce the film’s key players and how they interact. Around Josef (Adrian Mclaughlin), the Council of Ministers joke and swap stories and take the piss out of each other all with the aim of keeping the big man happy, maneuvering themselves into his good books and out of the Gulag. Particularly obsessive about this is Khruschvev (Steve Buscemi), who records everything he said and how it was received with his wife after a vodka with the lads, but the entire council are eager to protect their necks while stepping on each others. It’s Double Think, Top Gear style and after Stalin’s sudden death, the scramble to become next Comrade Clarkson begins rapidly.
There’s an interesting process at work in The Death of Stalin, which blends a very British sense of humour of social embarrassment with something distinctly bleaker, more Russian. The film settles into that rhythm very quickly, opening with a farcical set piece involving a musical performance Stalin wants recorded with Paddy Considine at the centre, hemming and hawing like Frank Spencer under threat of death. Iannucci has assembled a cast of talented talkers of different varieties, twisting them in knots as they strain to make sure to say the right thing, to make sure they say nothing that could be construed as even vaguely critical of Stalin even after he kicks the bucket, all the while trying to advance their own positions, a well-delivered Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World race of dialogue. Everyone keeping their normal accents serves to accentuate the character types they’re going for; Buscemi is motor-mouthed, Jeffrey Tambor, thrust into power as Georgy Malenkov is blustering and self-important, Michael Palin bumbles and mumbles as Stalin-cheerleader Vyacheslav Molotov, Jason Isaacs booms, a Northern English accent turned obnoxiously up to eleven as the general Georgy Zhukov. The best performance among many though belongs to Simon Russell Beale as NKVD chief Lavrentiy Beria. Beale toads up impressively and repulsively as Beria, callously signing off on death after death, taking advantage of the desperation of “devoted wives” in the process and generally being a “sneaky little shit”. He plays up as the villain of the piece so well, allowing it to hit all the harder when you remember that, oh yeah, they’re all the villain of the piece.
Harsh but fair, pacy and very funny, The Death of Stalin continues to show what Iannucci’s previous feature film, In the Loop, showed with the War on Iraq and the presence of James Gandolfini. The man is a deft hand with a bleak subject to rail against, and very capable of getting very funny, layered performances from talented actors. It’s a comedy with real weight behind it and well worth a watch.
(4 / 5)