While the majority of his finest work has come on the smaller screen, Scottish comedic genius Armando Iannucci now presents only his second cinematic endeavour following 2009’s In the Loop, with the uproariously funny satire The Death of Stalin. Remaining gloriously faithful to his style and brand of comedy, he puts his unique spin on the fall of Stalinism, in what is effectively The Thick of It or Veep – except in the Soviet Union.
The film begins with a live concert being broadcast on the radio. Turns out, the tyrannical dictator Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) wants a recording, and so panic ensues, as they must lock the doors, convince people from the street to come in and make up the numbers, not to mention the pursuit of a capable composer, and do the entire thing again – just to avoid being killed, a prevalent fear lingering over everybody and anybody during this precarious time. But then Stalin dies, and literally in a puddle of his urine, those closest to him mourn, but not for long – because these power-hungry individuals must now try and run this country between them, and they all have a rather specific way of how they want things done.
Amongst them is Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Molotov (Michael Palin) and Beria (Simon Russell Beale), while the deceased children Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend) are on hand to confuse matters. What makes this film so entertaining is just how horrible all of the above are. Each of them, no matter how they are portrayed, are vile individuals; they must be to have risen to where they are now. You don’t become a close friend and associate of Stalin unless you’ve done some pretty awful things. Palin’s Molotov seems to represent, in some regards, the heart of the piece in what could be described as the nicest of the characters – but he can’t be that kind, they literally named a petrol bomb after him.
You would think that that a film like this would need a sympathetic entry point for the viewer to embody, but that simply isn’t the case, and what transpires is a film that has an injection of suspense to it, as you always feel that at any given moment any of the characters could be killed for something innocuous. It’s nothing short a triumph that Iannucci manages to display such intensity without it compromising on the comedy, in what is a true masterclass of balancing themes and genres, for this tale is consistently amusing and yet there’s a real darkness that runs right the way through it, and never once lets up. It helps matters immeasurably when you’re dealing with such a remarkable cast too, and each and every character brings something excellent to the role, including, of course, Jason Isaacs as Zhukov.
The Death of Stalin is just so funny, and where it differs to Iannucci’s smaller screen productions like The Thick of It and Veep is that there’s no element of PR or social media, no need for the characters to have to try and repackage something and deliver it to the public as something it isn’t, which gives the characters free reign to do whatever they please – they don’t care what the public thinks about that, it’s a bit late for that.
Iannucci is making a complete and utter farce out of the whole period (Stalin having a cockney accent is inspired), and as a result it feels somewhat pertinent, perhaps alarmingly so. Though it shows that to achieve results like this you do have to go back in time and look into historical affairs, for it’s somewhat challenging to parody, and make a farce out of modern day politics. They’re doing that themselves.