Director: Armando Iannucci
Cast: Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs
Running time: 107 minutes
Russia, 1953. After Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) suffers a fatal heart attack, it’s up to his band of subordinates to decide upon a successor. Cue all manner of bickering, plotting, and scheming.
Armando Iannucci has built his career almost exclusively around political satire. From the ferociously funny BBC series The Thick of It to the subsequent feature spin-off In the Loop, Iannucci’s knack for hanging political figures out to dry – be it fictional, allegorical, or real – seems to come as naturally as cursing does to Steve Buscemi. His latest, The Death of Stalin – based on a graphic novel of the same name – is almost certainly his most daring satire to date – taking one of the darkest periods in modern history and running it for laughs. It is, and always was, going to be a risky game.
Luckily, Iannucci and fellow screenwriters David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows, are fully aware that comedy and terror are never more than a couple of doors down from one another. As a result, they have crafted something that is as serious as it is silly; as harrowing as it is humorous; and as bleak as it is bold. Here, there are frills and sparkles, but the curtain remains firmly iron.
You can imagine the initial reaction of those in the room when it was first suggested that, in a film about Stalin and the Soviet Union, there should be no Russian whatsoever – and barely even a whiff of the accent anywhere. Thankfully, the decision was made to run with it, and it’s certainly an inspired one. When we first meet the titular tyrant, he’s simultaneously bantering his apparent nearest and dearest while giving the order to bump off people willy-nilly, all in the greasy, geezer-ific tones of an Eastenders stalwart. Among his clan of middle-aged, mostly balding disciples, we have First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev (Buscemi), Chief of Stalin’s Secret Police (NKVD) Lavrentiy Beria (Beale), right-hand man Georgy Malenkov (Tambor), and Foreign Affairs Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Palin).
Don’t worry about remembering names – Iannucci doesn’t expect you to – and unless you really know your Russian history, they’ll mostly go in one ear and straight out the other. It’ll be what they say and do that is most memorable, as each take it in turns to be suitably clumsy, quirky, increasingly cutthroat, and almost always comically, and categorically, detestable.
“Nobody is going to get killed” assures Paddy Considine’s everyday music hall manager, “it’s just a musical emergency” he concludes after a fiercely bonkers opening act. It’s at this point we know exactly what we’re in for. From there, casual jokes are dropped about mass killings and those on Stalin’s infamous blacklist who have since ‘disappeared’; authority figures chuck in throwaway remarks that hint at sexual abuse and torture; and powerful men become paranoid over each potentially ill-judged anecdote. Jason Isaacs is wonderfully cast as a foul-mouthed army general – complete with Yorkshire accent – who turns up to belittle our graceless rabble of politicians and request lubricant; and Palin’s eccentric Molotov harbours shades of Python as a man in a constant state of self-squabble over where he stands on his own wife’s incarceration and apparent execution.
Everything about it says that The Death of Stalin should really be the antithesis of good taste. And in many ways, it really is. But, crucially, the narrative is constructed in such an attentive and careful way that we are never allowed to forget the bleakness and sincerity that underpins its subject matter. Despite the tomfoolery, there is something very sobering and timely about watching a group of educated men in positions of immense power behave so atrociously irresponsibly – all they are missing is Twitter and a White House it would seem.
“I have no idea what is going on” states Tambor’s Malenkov at one point; and in doing so perfectly encapsulates the film’s satirical depiction of its political figureheads. The Death of Stalin might not be as laugh-out-loud as you might be expecting, but this is some of the sharpest, and darkest humour you’re likely to see all year.