If there’s a darker comedy out there than THE DEATH OF STALIN, I’m not sure I want to see it. This is the blackest of black humour, a seemingly impossible situation to derive laughter from, but Armando Iannucci somehow manages it.
When Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) collapsed suddenly in March 1953, the prospect of his imminent death created the Mother Russia of all power vacuums. Even before Stalin’s body is cold (or he is confirmed as definitely dead) the most powerful comrades in the USSR begin in-fighting and back-stabbing, making deals and writing lists. Who will be the last man standing?
Iannucci and co have assembled one of the greatest comedy ensembles in years, made up of thespians, British TV talent and Hollywood big names. Jeffrey Tambor’s Malenkov is a buffoon who can’t remember who’s dead and who isn’t, but is still presumed Stalin’s heir apparent. Simon Russell Beale’s Beria is the monster amongst monsters, utterly terrifying (not to mention completely different to Beale’s usual luvvy persona) and prepared to do anything to advance his position. Michael Palin’s Molotov is a doddery old back-stabber, quick to change allegiances to save his skin. Steve Buscemi as Kruschev is the most disliked man in every room – the canny man who survives everything. No cod-Russian accents here: everyone uses their own cadence accept for Jason Isaacs who, for some reason plays his alpha Marshall Zhukov through the prism of Sean Bean.
The opening scene set at a concert hall is a mini-masterpiece in itself, with Paddy Considine’s musical arranger working his way steadily towards a nervous breakdown re-staging a performance that has just completed since Comrade Stalin “wouldn’t mind” a recording of. The more farcical elements of the film get pretty Pythonesque, and might be considered a bit “too silly” (someone gets stressed about their new suit getting ruined when moving Stalin’s body, everyone pushes and shoves to get the best position around their leader’s coffin as he lies in state) if most of it hadn’t actually happened. Of course appropriate that Michael Palin is hovering at the edge of many shots. If it wasn’t for all the mass murder and torture dungeons, this could be a petty schoolyard squabble; there’s enough two-faced bitchiness and shoving going on.
The overarching feeling you get from The Death of Stalin is one of tonal whiplash. It’s more successful than not, but bouncing from entire families being led out into the streets to be shot to name-calling around conference tables takes some getting used to. I found the score alternating between simple, playful motifs for the sitcom stuff and grandstanding orchestration for the larger story of the USSR in crisis more distracting than supportive of the story.
It’s as creatively sweary as you’ve come to expect from one of the creators of THE THICK OF IT and IN THE LOOP, and the dialogue has a wonderful rapid-fire rhythm. Ianucci’s other satirical work at least can be shrugged off as, “Well, that’s democracy for you” but here it’s hard to outpace the horror of an autocratic regime, even if you’re going for universal human silliness as your well of comedy rather than something more biting.
The Death of Stalin won’t be for everyone, but it’s a bold effort to find humour and human fallibility in the darkest of situations. You’re bound to laugh at some point, even if you feel like you really shouldn’t be, and seeing these actors sharing screentime convincingly playing historical monsters has intrinsic entertainment value. At the very least it’s a slightly jarring curiosity, but if you’re on board for Iannucci’s salty satirical gaze turned on a regime in the rear-view mirror, this will be a real treat. SSP