Secret dealings, cabinet reshuffles, political scheming… Armando Iannucci’s first major project since his departure from Veep in 2015 could easily be another of his scabrous attacks on contemporary politics. With The Death of Stalin, however, he turns instead to history, chronicling the power struggles in the Soviet Union after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953.
Adapted from the French graphic novel of the same name, The Death of Stalin is black comedy at its very darkest, dealing with one of the bloodiest periods in Russian history. Despite this, a carefully balanced script ensures that it successfully avoids being overly insensitive and being ‘yet another’ mild political satire.
With one of the most impressive comedic ensembles in years, The Death of Stalin presents a clash of egos which more accurately resembles a dysfunctional family at Christmas than the most powerful politicians in the Soviet Union. Simon Russell Beale is particularly impressive as the scheming, slimy police chief, Beria, and the plaudits he’s garnered from this performance will hopefully mean that we will soon be seeing far more of one of Britain’s foremost stage actors on the big screen.
The strength in the variety of the cast is most obvious in the use of their natural accents which results in a disarming cacophony of nationalities bickering in the Kremlin. This is at its most effective in Jason Isaac’s mid-movie turn as military general Georgy Zhukov, re-imagined as a blunt Yorkshire-man, which is hysterical enough to dispel even the harshest of critics. Without such a strong and varied ensemble cast, The Death of Stalin could have been a very different film, and it’s heartening to see Iannucci allowing each actor to play to their strengths. Perhaps it’s Michael Palin’s turn as Molotov, the submissive functionary who seems to have shovelled all of his self-respect into the fire of Stalinism, but there is a distinct Pythonesque sensibility to the film; an awkward committee meeting scene in which the absurd panic of the key players is written all over their faces springs to mind.
This farcical tone is made clear from the outset. The prologue scene features a distressed radio operative, Andreyev (Paddy Considine), receiving a demand from Stalin (Adrien McLoughlin) for a recording of a concert that had just that moment ended. For fear of what may happen if he doesn’t provide the record, a panicked Andreyev demands the audience remain in their seats whilst the concert is repeated and rounds up another conductor all but at gunpoint (“Don’t worry, nobody’s going to be killed!”). This perfectly choreographed scene conveys the absurdist panic and fear which will provide the backdrop to the icily ruthless wheelings and dealings of these seemingly incompetent communist power players throughout the film.
a clash of egos that resembles a dysfunctional family at Christmas
It may be a comedy, but its testament to how closely the absurd politics depicted in the film resemble reality that the Russian government has threatened to ban the film, calling it “part of a western plot to destabilise Russia”. Iannucci and co-writer David Schneider have doubled down on the ludicrousness and silliness of the graphic novel, but nevertheless, there remain some disturbingly potent parallels with contemporary global politics. Despite hilarious moments featuring Steve Buscemi walking into the Kremlin in his pyjamas, The Death of Stalin is more than just a comedy.
Iannucci demonstrates his nuanced film-making, knowing what is appropriate to make fun of (an intense debate over the choice of drapes for a funeral) and what it is best to treat with a degree of sincerity (the government’s attacks on civilians). In the latter scenes, humour takes a back seat as we witness the blunt brutality of the regime. These genuinely horrific moments demonstrate why films like The Death of Stalin are so important; there is humour in the form of the total incompetence and panic of those hungry for power, but it is a genuine fear that drives these absurdist situations.
Biting, scabrous and genuinely horrifying in equal measure
The film isn’t perfect by any means; turning one of the darkest periods in modern history into a laugh-out-loud comedy can make for slightly uncomfortable viewing at times. Additionally, the fact that the ensemble cast is so strong and the running time barely over 100 minutes means that many characters feel underdeveloped and their narratives neglected – for instance, Rupert Friend as Stalin’s hysterical son, Vasily, feels particularly underused. That being said, part and parcel of having such a great ensemble cast is that you never feel as if you’re seeing enough of any of them.
Biting, scabrous and genuinely horrifying in equal measure, The Death of Stalin has no right to work, but, thanks to Iannucci’s proven genius and a remarkable cast, it does. The film is not a natural successor to Iannucci’s previous political satires, but shares with The Thick of It and Veep a delightfully witty and fast-paced script and a dark ‘how did they get away with that?!’ sense of humour. If you like your comedy with a touch of genuine historical horror, this is the film for you, comrade.